Background on Colorado Agriculture

Colorado did not strike early explorers as a potential Garden of Eden.

When he crossed from Nebraska into the future Colorado Territory on July 6, 1842, John C. Fremont wrote:

“The impression of the country traveled over today was one of dry and barren sands.”

The next day he noted,

“Nothing of interest occurred during the morning. The same dreary barrenness, except that a hard, marly clay had replaced the sandy soil…” (1)

Reading reports like these, few mid-19th century farmers entertained the notion of tilling Colorado land. Situated in the middle of the nation, Colorado was isolated by high mountains, dry plains, and unnavigable rivers. A perceived threat of Indian attacks hovered over this wild zone, often referred to as “The Great American Desert.” No wonder prospective farmers opted for the long road to Oregon’s lush valleys.

Early Colorado ranch, probably on eastern plains. Shows sand, windmill, cows, and piles of wood and yucca plants.
(Early Colorado ranch, probably on eastern plains. Colorado State University Libraries, Archives and Special Collections, Historical Photographs Collection.)

Nonetheless, a few hardy groups had already practiced subsistence agriculture in Colorado. The Ancestral Puebloans of the Mesa Verde area planted and irrigated their crops for centuries. Hispanic migrants from New Mexico successfully transplanted their communal irrigation tradition into the San Luis Valley. And groups of Americans, Mexicans, Frenchmen, and Canadians ran livestock and coaxed up crops, mostly along the waterways of the Front Range.

But Colorado was not to remain a backwater for much longer. As word of gold and silver strikes spread, the bleak landscape that Fremont described could not discourage the rush of fortune-seekers. And, as territorial governor Samuel E. Elbert told the legislature in the early 1870s:

…You cannot work your mines profitable on imported bread. The thousands who now, and will hereafter delve in these mountains and lift their glittering treasures to the sunlight, must draw their sustenance from the fertile valleys that lie enveloped in their arms & stretch away from their feet. (2)

Commercial agriculture got its start serving the fevered mining industry. Railroads reached Denver in 1870, facilitating a quicker journey between Colorado and eastern cities. Many newcomers—arriving in railcars or in horse-drawn wagons, traveling alone or with a whole colony of potential neighbors—came specifically to build their future on a farm. In 1863, an agricultural society was formed; in 1866, Colorado held its first fair; in 1879, Colorado Agricultural College opened its doors to students.

Plowing the field. One man rides behind four large horses.
(Plowing the field. Colorado State University Libraries, Archives and Special Collections, Historical Photographs Collection.)

But the “Great American Desert” didn’t turn into a garden with the snap of two fingers. As the Colorado agricultural historian, Alvin Steinel, noted in 1926:

Yields under irrigation were astonishingly large, when compared with farming “back east;” nevertheless, the farmer realized that he got results only at a cost of great effort in labor and outlay, and that he could leave nothing to chance in a country where the average precipitation was about one-third of that to which he had been accustomed.(3)

Irrigation and water law rapidly moved into the limelight of Colorado agriculture. The earliest farmers claimed the well-watered bottom lands; later arrivals had to learn how to maneuver water out of rivers and onto their land. Done successfully, this involved more than one farm family’s labor—it required the cooperation of the local community, engineering expertise, and the establishment of water law.

The new ditches and canals—tapping the rivers that sprang from high mountain snowmelt—promoted the cultivation of crops like hay, alfalfa, sugar beets, melons, grapes, tree fruits, and grains.

Man and woman stand in sugar beet field. Woman holds up two large, mature sugar beets.
(Harvesting beets in Fort Morgan. Records of the Great Western Sugar Company, Agricultural and Natural Resources Archive, Colorado State University.)

As irrigation reached across the landscape, water rights turned into an expensive commodity—too expensive for some. Dry farming looked attractive to farmers of small means, and a wet run of years in the 1880s encouraged homesteaders to try their luck on the eastern plains. Succeeding waves of drought in the 1890s and, later, the 1930s, undermined the viability of dry farming in Colorado.

While many parts of Colorado proved to be too dry or too high for crops, some industrious newcomers approached the mountain meadows or the rolling prairie with other intentions:

To the practiced eye of the grazier it was clear that these western grasses differed in character from the varieties to which he had been accustomed in the States...It was a discovery confirmed by later experience that grasses cured by Nature on the ground not only maintained stock in good flesh, but that animals actually increased in weight during the winter. (4)

The western slope, mountain parks and eastern plains all offered attractive range for cattle and sheep herders, fostering a “cowboy” culture in the 1870s and 1880s.

But livestock grazed on more than grass—in Colorado, they grew fat munching sugar beet tops and pulp. These by-products of sugar growing and processing could be found in the beet regions of the South Platte and Arkansas River Valleys, with beet farmers and factories dispersed more thinly on the Western Slope. For more on this peculiarly important crop, see the side bar at the left of this screen.

Early day fruit stand. Several men, women and children pose with watermelon, cherries, and other fruits. Palisade Public Library Collection, Loyd Files Research Library, Museum of Western Colorado, 1979.23 #82.)
(Early Day fruit stand. Palisade Public Library Collection, Loyd Files Research Library, Museum of Western Colorado, 1979.23 #82.)

By 1920 most of Colorado’s new settlement was over. (5) Fittingly, this year also marks the tipping point of urban migration—since 1920, more Americans have lived in cities and suburbs than in the country. Today, most Coloradans live in the urban areas along the Front Range, where the high plains meet the mountains. Yet Colorado’s roots remain deeply fixed in agriculture. This project helps maintain a connection with our older, agrarian identity.

Although the research information collected for this project covers 1820-1945, agricultural activities continue in the state, adding flavor to 21st-century Colorado. More information about Colorado agriculture, history, and related topics can be found at the useful links section of the Web site.

Notes:

1. Working, D.W., in Alvin T. Steinel, History of Agriculture in Colorado: A Record of Progress in the Development of General Farming, Livestock Production and Agricultural Education and Investigation, on the Western Border of the Great Plains and in the Mountains of Colorado, 1858-1926. Fort Collins: State Agricultural College, 1926. 16-17.

2. Quoted in Steinel, 194.

3. Steinel, 84.

4. Steinel, 110.

5. William Wyckoff, Creating Colorado: The Making of A Western American Landscape, 1860-1940. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999. 3.