Colorado Experience: Centennial Farms

Colorado Experience: Centennial Farms

– Agriculture is the
second largest contributor to Colorado’s economy. And the state’s
agricultural history illustrates tenacity
and resilience despite disastrous growing
seasons and economic hardship. Hi. I’m John Ferrugia. Through its Centennial
Farms program, History Colorado recognizes
farms and ranches owned and operated by the same
family for over 100 years. Now, this honor is
bestowed annually at the Colorado State Fair. Today, Colorado boasts over 500
Centennial farms and ranches throughout the state. In this episode of
Colorado Experience, you will meet fourth, fifth,
and sixth generation farmers who are continuing to
work the land once planted by their ancestors
over 100 years ago. And now, Colorado Experience. Centennial Farms. – The history of Colorado and
the history of agriculture do go hand in hand. People have been farming
in Colorado for hundreds, if not thousands of years. – Ranching has to
be in your blood. Farming has to be in your blood. – Centennial farm
is a designation of the family working that
same land, that same area, for a hundred years. – Shows the progression of
agriculture from the early 19– 1800s to the present. – When we lose contact
with our origins and our origins
become an abstraction, we have been mentally damaged. – It’s not an easy life, but
it’s extremely rewarding. – This program was funded by
the History Colorado State Historical Fund. – Supporting projects
throughout the state to preserve, protect,
and interpret Colorado’s architectural and
archaeological treasures. History Colorado
State Historical Fund. Create the future,
honor the past. – With support from the
Denver Public Library History Colorado. With additional funding
and support from these fine organizations and
viewers like you. Thank you. [music playing] – The history of
agriculture in Colorado is older than the state itself. Colorado’s first farmers tilled
the Earth more than 1,500 years ago, when the ancestral
Pueblo people first planted maize, beans,
and squash atop the mesas of southwestern Colorado. The Utes, the
original Coloradans, diverted streams
to create fields, allowing crops to grow in
the Great American Desert. As Hispano settlers arrived in
Colorado, boundaries changed. Mexican officials issued land
grants in the 1830s and 40s, encouraging settlement in
this part of the country. – The San Luis Valley was Indian
country back in the 1800s. A number of Hispanic
colonists from New Mexico had come up and
tried to stay here, but the Ute Indians
basically kept them out. – You’re moving your
family into a place that might be precarious,
having that made possible by an official
government land grant. That’s a really important
part of the dynamic. – These are farming communities
with irrigation ditches that predate the Pike’s
Peak Gold Rush and represent some of the oldest
continuous farming in Colorado. – Those are not always the
calmest areas to move into. – My great grandpa, Felipe,
Indians capture him. – He was hurting the
family sheep in Mexico. And he was captured
by the Apaches. – So that he couldn’t get
away, they took hot irons and they burnt the
back of his knees. – He tried to run
away with a companion and made it to the Rio Grande. In those days, the Rio
Grande had a lot of. Water and they were
trying to find a place to cross when the
Indians recaptured them. They had plans to have
my grandfather marry an Indian girl so
they didn’t kill him. They tied his
companion to a tree and lashed him to death as a
lesson to my great grandfather that he should not
try to run away again. – After they got
whatever they wanted to get out of him
for so many years, they sold them as a slave. – Our ancestors came
from northern New Mexico into the valley
sometime in the 1850s. We do know that the
Salazar ditch, which is one of the oldest ditches
priorities in the San Luis Valley, has an
1856 priority date. Francisco Esteban
came to the valley because things were getting
crowded in northern New Mexico. The farms were small. It was hard to make
a living on the farm. And when they saw
the opportunity to come into the valley
and farm, they came. And so they came with their
cattle and their sheep. They did not have
a lot of money, so the original homestead tract
here, they only had 14 acres. And then they expanded it. – My great, great, great,
great something, you know, grandpa Serio he
was only 17 at the time. And to go work in the mines,
you had to be 18 legally. And he signed his age a little
older than he was and he went off and worked in the
mines and got enough money to buy a 40 acre piece
of land that we still have on the property. And he was able to
give it to his family. – The San Luis Valley is a
large, high mountain valley in the south central
part of Colorado. It’s a glacial valley. The glaciers left behind a
very fertile layer of soil in the valley,
which is underpinned by enormous aquifers. And so the San Luis
Valley, although it has a relatively
short growing season, is a wonderful place to
grow potatoes, and beans, and squash, and barley. – Well, this is probably the
most beautiful place on earth. This is Los Ricones, Colorado. We were all born and
raised on this ranch. As a matter of fact, my dad and
mom raised eight children right here on 52 acres of land. – In the early days, there was a
flour mill right close to here. And so people raised their own
wheat, took it to the mill, had it milled. My father, when I
was a young child, used to take potatoes from our
farm into northern New Mexico and exchange them
for apples, chili, for the different kinds
of fruits that are grown in northern New Mexico. – When we were
five years old, we were actually
loading bales of hay, and hauling them, and
putting them away in storage. We learned to ride horses
since we were little kids. We learned to drive tractors
since we were little kids. – As a little boy, my dad
would take us on cattle drives. My father and
grandfather had a ranch, but it was a small ranch. And so they would get together
with the other relatives and they would take cattle
up to the mountains together. – We found our
inspiration in working along the field
with my mom and dad, just trying to make sure
that we fed the family. – I remember my mother clearly
going out and butchering the chicken because, you know,
we didn’t have grocery stores nearby, and that’s what we
would have for lunch or dinner. – We canned fruits
and vegetables. We froze them. Everything was homemade. When we got older, my
father expanded the farm. Then, we were needed
to run the tractors. – The first tractor
that we got was in 1956. So before that, it was
horse drawn equipment. That’s one of the reasons
the farms were small. Back in about 1951, my
father’s side of the farm was too small really
to support a family. And so he bought the first
piece of land in 1951. And then, in 1969, he again
saw the need to expand and so he bought
another quarter section. And then did the same
thing in about 1975. We’ve had to keep pace. – I used to love to
get up in the morning and I’d look forward
to going and sitting on a tractor for 12 hours. And I really appreciate the
fact that my brothers and my dad encouraged us, even
though we were women, to go out and run all
the farm equipment. – It was up early, milking
the cows at 5 o’clock in the morning. Then, in the evening,
it was study hall. My father made sure that we
worked really hard in school because he always said,
the gateway to opportunity is education. – In 1859, the San Luis
Valley experienced an increase in demand due to a little
something called the Colorado Gold Rush, which spearheaded
a mass influx of prospectors looking to get rich and get out. During this time, the demand
for food in the Rocky Mountains exceeded the supply and
boosters took to the streets, encouraging those on the
East Coast and the Midwest to head for this
unknown territory. – When you have
a bunch of people who were drawn to
an area because of the hope of mineral riches,
you have some hungry people. – Everything you eat is
out of cans or it’s dried. And you’re bringing flour,
and salt, and sugar with you, and coffee, but fresh produce
is almost impossible to come by. Fresh meat, initially
in Colorado, was very difficult unless
you went up to the mountains and hunted game. – So it was expensive
and draining to bring in food imported from
the Missouri River country. No, that’s not going to work. So it is just a open door
of opportunity for farmers. – The first thing that
boosters had to do was overturn the popular
idea that Colorado was the Great American Desert. This was a label
that had been applied by explorers such as Zebulon
Pike and Stephen Long who– – –said it’s too dry here
for you to come practice agriculture. – That agricultural settlement
would never stick in Colorado. – The booster is a
extremely important figure in Western American history. They were romanticizers of
the West and it’s opportunity. – People like William Byers
began writing about Colorado as the new Garden of Eden. A place where you could
grow virtually any crop that you wanted to. And, in theory, he was right. The soil in Colorado
is extremely rich. The problem, of course,
is finding the water. – Our great, great grandfather
George Bee brought his family from England in 1853. And they settled in
upper Sandusky, Ohio. He had five brother in-laws
that settled in Iowa. His son John, when he
was 16, he went to Iowa and met his wife there
and had four children. But he suffered from
asthma and tuberculosis and so needed a drier climate. – The farm started in 1882. My great, great grandfather
homesteaded about four miles north of Fort Collins. There, he had some cattle. And he also farmed like
he did back in Iowa. So he planted some corn. The first year, the rains came
and he made a pretty good crop. And he thought, this
is pretty good country. Well, the second, and
third, fourth year, they did the same things, but
the rains did not come. And the crops did not do well. – And then they moved
to an irrigated farm so that he could raise
crops, small grains that didn’t take as much water. – They had Jersey milk cows. They had chickens. And the butter and the
eggs were two products that they produced that they
could take into town and sell. – Sugar beets
were, quite simply, the crop that saved
Colorado after the collapse of the silver economy. The legend goes that Charles
Boettcher, who was a Leadville hardware store owner, traveled
on vacation to Germany with his wife and met
with German farmers who were growing sugar beet. The story goes, he took
one of his suitcases and emptied out all the
clothes and filled it with sugar beet seed, which
he brought back to Colorado. – He found out
they grew very well and they produced
very good sugar. – Some of the gold and silver
money from the Denver area was invested in the
sugar beet industry. So they did build factories. One of the first ones
in northern Colorado was the Loveland
factory in 1903. And then Fort Collins
had a factory in 1905. So we started
raising sugar beets. – The sugar beet grows a
tuber root in the ground. And that’s what you’re
after is that root. They would harvest the beet,
pull it up, and get that root. And chop it up, and boil
it, and make a molasses. And they would get the sugar
crystals out of that process. – We’ve raised sugar
beets for 100 years and it’s been the main
cash crop for the farm. – And sugar became the
major cash crop in Colorado between 1890 and the 1960s. – And it was a family affair. All the family members went
out to harvest the sugar beets. It was all done by hand. – Labor was the
biggest issue in sugar. The Great Western Sugar
plant had recruiting agencies on the Texas-Mexico border. They sent recruiters
overseas to Europe to bring in laborers to work
in the Colorado beet fields. – At first, it was the
German, Russian people that migrated to America. They came and worked in
the sugar beet fields. They were very industrious
and they saved their money and soon owned their own farms. – The Japanese came and
worked in the beet fields. And, in time, Mexicans came
up from Central America and worked in the beet fields. – During World War II,
there was a prisoner of war camp in Windsor. And the prisoners would come
work in the sugar beet fields during that time. My dad had a brother
that was over in England fighting in the war. So I’m sure there must have
been a lot of mixed feelings with having the prisoners here. – In the 1920s, there were
a lot of sheep pastured up in the high mountain meadows. So they would herd those down
to the railroad in ship them back east. One winter, they got stuck
here because a train couldn’t transport them because
of the blizzard. They had to figure out
how to feed these sheep. They found out that the
sheep loved sugar beet tops. The leaves and everything
that they cut off and they just left on the
ground, the sheep loved them. So the sheep industry started. – There were so many sheep
fed in the Fort Collins area that it was known as the lamb
feeding capital of the world. – From 1900 until the
1920s, the United States celebrated what was
soon known as the Golden Age of Agriculture. Prices were high,
fields were green, farmers took loans
from the bank to buy up more land, more
seeds, more equipment. Little did they know, there
was a storm on the horizon. – As a farmer in Colorado,
the most important thing you could do is locate
your farm near water. Near a stream, preferably. A place where you have
secure water rights. – In Colorado, an
often noted fact is that 86% of the water in
Colorado goes to agriculture. – Without water,
there is no ranch. Without water, there is no farm. – Colorado has gone through a
series of agricultural booms and busts. Times of abundant rainfall
and then times of drought. And times where the
markets for wheat or corn were really great and
times when they collapsed. – If the prices are low,
produce more and then at least have more to sell, but then
that drives the prices lower. And it’s a very hard situation. The early years of the
20th century, those were quite prosperous years. By the 1920s, the dangers
of overproduction and debt, as you try to save yourself from
troubles in the future and you try to buy equipment. And then there’s the sudden
changes in weather or prolonged periods of drought. – In good times, there’s
so much opportunity for farmers in Colorado. But in bad times,
it’s very difficult to make a living here. And in the 1930s,
depression and drought drove thousands of
farmers into bankruptcy. The land itself, especially on
the plains, became untillable. Farmers were forced to relocate
to the Western slope or all the way to California
in order to survive. – Eastern Colorado was
hit hard by the Dust Bowl. Especially the
Southeastern corner of the state, which
would be known years later as the
epicenter of the worst human caused environmental
disaster in US history. Colorado’s Western
slope, however, remained an ideal landscape
for planting fruit trees. – My ancestors came to Colorado
from Ankeny, Iowa in 1910. My granddad and his
two brothers came here because they heard of the
wonderful fruit raising area that Delta County was. They found this orchard that
was already a producing orchard. They farmed for a couple
years and his two brothers got disgusted and
went back to Iowa. And so he decided to
stay and tough it out. My granddad’s name was
William E. Weyraugh – The Western Slope has very
different climate conditions than the High Plains. And it has a different kind
of soil composition, as well. And the soil in
the Western Slope is really well-suited
to fruit agriculture. – There is a good
temperature extreme. Apples like cold mornings. And then they like to
warm up in the afternoon. They like the cold nights. Plus, we just got good
air and good water. – The Western Slope
is warm and sunny, but it also is subject
to periods of frost. And an early frost
or a late frost could wipe out an entire
crop before the trees even began to bud. – When my granddad built this
house, he was a carpenter. And he built the whole thing. They packed all
the draft horses. Pulled all the rock and gravel
from the river up the hill. And they mixed the concrete
and poured the base in. Built the house. Everything was ready to move in. And it caught on fire from
spontaneous combustion. And so they had to redo the
whole basement and the floors. Otherwise, it’s a
great house and it’s been standing there forever. – Railroads opened up the
Western Slope to farming. And once the
railroads arrived, you could really bring seeds
from anywhere in the country. Hice Ranch is
located in Austin, Colorado. The original farmers called
Weyraugh Brothers Farm. Then, when my dad and mom
took it over in the 50s, it was Hice – Weyraugh. They
had the apples, peaches, pears, cherries. And then, of course, they had
their livestock, dairy cows, and a couple workhorses. Some chickens And, you know, typical farm. – You can can it, you
can do different forms of preservation, but the
whole 20th century passion for fresh fruit and
for the privilege that comes from refrigerator cars
moving fruits and vegetables around and people in wintry
climates getting to have food they can preserve. – In about the early ’20s,
my granddad decided that they needed a way to
market the fruit. So they built a packing
house down in Austin. It was a big rail head then. And so they would ship the fruit
here as far as Kansas City, from right here in Austin. He said the only
way he could ever make sure that the fruit
got there in good condition was to go with it. So he’d get on the train here
in Austin and go with the fruit wherever it went. To make sure it got to where
it was in good condition. They had a dry ice
plant and that’s what they used to
put in the rail cars. In those days, when
they had peach trees, they had peach bores,
which are worms. And they would get in
the trunk of the tree and they’d kill the tree. They’d put these gunny
sacks around the tree, and with a wire and
tighten them up, and then they’d soak it
with some kind of chemical, or sweet, or something
that the worms would like. The worms would crawl
in there and they’d need to have to take the burlap
off and kill the worms by hand. My granddad ran
this till the ’50s. And then my mom and
dad took this over. My dad developed a
half pear, half apple. It was a delicious fruit. It would look like an apple
and tasted like a pear. It was crisp like an apple. Fairly juicy like an apple. They were great. To harvest the fruit, there
was actually people lined up to work in those days. For example, the
cherries that we used to pick– we usually picked
them around July 4– people’d start calling in May. When are you going
to pick the cherries? We want to get on
the list to pick. And we’d maybe have
75 or 100 people here to pick cherries, or
apples, or anything. That’s how a lot of
people lived around here, was just manual labor. – Adaptation is something
all farmers learn to expect. Change can be
beneficial to farmers, bringing increased efficiency
with crop patterns, irrigation, and
prevention of disease. But change can also
serve as a challenge. – During the ’40s and the ’50s,
the progression of equipment and tools increased
substantially. Tractors came, all
sizes and shapes. Instead of taking
a team of horses out and working
them for half a day, stopping to give the
horses a chance to rest, when the tractors
came, they didn’t have to rest the tractor. It just kept going. – The 1950s were a period
of technological innovation and the time where the
central pivot irrigation sprinkler was invented. Actually, in Colorado. Of course, all of
that new technology is capital intensive. It costs money. That meant the farmers had to
continue growing and expanding their farms in order
to make ends meet. – Technology is really
something, as an engineer, that I can be really appreciate. I put GPSes on the tractors. Now I can farm
really straight rows. I can take my phone and I
can run all the sprinklers from my phone. Technology has
made farming easier and it’s also made it possible
to farm bigger expanses of land more efficiently. – We went from
cutting, and stacking, and raking, baling
about ten acres a day, to doing over 500 acres a day. – CSU was in Fort Collins
doing all kinds of research. The sugar beets before the
1940s was a multi-germ seed. Six or seven plants would
come out of one seed. Part of the process was
to go through and pick out the plants until there
was just one plant left. In the 1950s, they
were able to get a seed that only had one germ
in it to produce one plant. Took less labor to
raise the plants and also helped in harvesting. – The farmers have always
had an interest in coming up with ways to deter
insects, or other animals like deer or rabbits,
from eating their crops. In the 1960s and 70s, new
types of chemical insecticides were being developed
that made the plants more resistant to insect
infestations. – And back then, people
didn’t think too much about the environment. And the chemicals that we
used back then that were used were really harsh chemicals. As time has progressed, there’s
been a real consciousness about the fact that we are
stewards of this planet. And that we need to make
sure that, generations down, we still have a healthy
environment in farming. – The estimates
in the 1980s were something like 40%
of Colorado farmers on the edge of bankruptcy. And that was a combination of
market conditions, and dropping prices, and a very heavy debt
load that farmers, in optimism, had taken on the debt. – Farming is up and down. It’s kind of hard to
survive on a single income. When When you have a bad year
and that income isn’t there, you’ve got to figure out how
to make that up a little bit. – My mom was a
teacher and she taught first grade and sixth grade. A second income was necessary. And it still is today. – My grandmother
would gather eggs and she would walk into
the town of Manassa and she would sell eggs. And that would bring in a
little bit of extra money. – I am a professional surveyor. My surveying company has
supported me to farm. Right now, I grow nursery
stock and it takes ten years to grow nursery
stock so you have to have something
to kind of tide you through as you’re going along. – If you want to
start farming now, it’s really difficult unless you
have some parents, or an uncle, or somebody who has the
land, and the equipment, and all to help
you start farming. Because it’s so expensive. – In 2002, the farm
economy wasn’t too good. And so finally decided
to sell the farm. – And we were farming
over 700 acres of ground. And were just barely making it. The other farmers in the
area who wanted to farm were getting bigger,
and bigger, and bigger. And so land was
becoming a premium. – We were able to
sell it to CSU. So they own the land
all around us now. And there were so
many things that had been saved by the family. – And so we decided to
create a farm museum. – The majority of founding
of the nation were farmers. And now it’s just a
very small percentage. – Colorado’s Centennial
Farms represent the ingenuity and perseverance of dedicated
farmers and ranchers from generation to generation. While today’s farmers face more
challenges than ever before, the pride of carrying
on a family’s legacy ruminates through
fields across Colorado. – Who will be growing
the food in the future is not any question that I
or anyone else can answer, but someone had better
be growing the food. – This idea of starting a
jerky business on the farm had been floating around the
family for a decade, maybe even two decades. And so I made that my
next career choice. To start a butcher
shop and a smokehouse. And to start raising pigs. But now I’m very
squarely invested and imagine myself
being here in some way, shape, or form
probably until I die. – What I really want to do
as a sixth generation farmer is enhance everything
that has been given to me. And because that is where
going to get resilience in the future. I do definitely feel the need
to innovate and further develop the production methods
that have been given to us. Because it’s hard
to make it work. – I was born and raised
here on the ranch. And grandpa had cows. Now, we run the cows. It’s always been in our blood. It’s always been in our family. It’s a livelihood that
we were brought into. And that I will die
before I leave it. – It’d be nice to keep it in the
family for another 100 years. Time’s ticking on and I don’t
have any children of my own, but I have some
nieces and nephews that would love to have it. I’m hoping he’ll take it over. – Hopefully, the
museum will go on and we’ll be able
to have the animals. – We’ll always come to my
dad or my aunts and uncles and ask them, what was
the foundation to you? Well, this was an old corral
that great grandpa Felipe used to have. It brings to mind a great
question of the hard life that they lived so we could be
at the point that we’re at now. – We have several buildings. One of them is the 1894 house. There’s two rooms that were
built by our great Uncle Al. We also have a 1942 house. There’s a milk barn. So I think it’s important
to preserve these things. – Where your milk comes from,
where the eggs come from, is all important. – This is probably one of
the only Standard Delicious orchard in Delta County. Probably on the Western Slope. – These apple trees here are
almost, I’m sure, probably 65, 70 years old. My dad planted those when
I was about four years old. – In farming, you
get an opportunity to try something new. Have a new crop, a new
generation every year. – A centennial
farm, of course, is a farm that has been in one
family for at least 100 years. When you think about
that for even a moment, the difficulty of
keeping a farm in one family over the good times
and the bad in Colorado is phenomenal. These farms represent
a continuity, a tradition that takes us
back to our earliest roots as settlers in Colorado. – It’s a wonderful
deal to have this ranch and I thank God and
my family for it. – Things have sure
changed quite a bit. My hope is that, when I retire
later on, that my son will be able to take it over. My goal is that
I’m not too old so that I can teach my
grandchildren how to ride horses. And how to rope and do all
the cowboy stuff that I enjoy. – We still try to
carry on that legacy. You know, we still do
cattle drives by horseback. We still do camping
out under the stars. We try to relive that
lifestyle as much as possible. Just to keep it
fresh in our memories and know that what
we have couldn’t have existed if it wasn’t for them. – I very much enjoy being here
with my children, my nieces, my nephews, and then
my grandchildren. Have a little
grandson, Andrew, who loves to spend the
summers here with me. And he’s going to be a
farmer like his papoy. [music playing]

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