Ode to a Flat Place

In the struggling town of Joes, CO, Harry Cutting discovers that while agriculture has modernized, a farmer’s livelihood is still subject to the whims of external forces.

A hundred and thirty miles east of Denver, way beyond the airport and the fringe suburbs and the last Seven Eleven store, is the town of Joes, Colorado. The town itself has seen better days; its two motels have long been closed, the old restaurant keeps trying to reopen. There’s not much else town-like that meets the eye. There are farms, though fewer in number but larger in size than in years past. And the farmers here are generally pleased to be getting a decent price for their crops this year, thanks to the run-up in wheat, corn, and sugar prices — “generally” pleased because they’re a wary bunch, though they’ll happily accept the higher prices without complaint. After all, it’s not that often they get a fair price.

I’m parked in my rental car in Dain Wise’s dooryard scribbling in my notebook when he pulls in with his pickup truck. He hops out and makes a beeline for the house, so I quickly introduce myself.

“Oh,” he says, “I thought you were another insurance salesman.”

Wise has been farming corn for thirty five years a little north of Kirk, Colorado. Inside his house we sit on stools at his kitchen counter. Neither of us takes our hat off. He’s talking about fertilizer prices during the big commodity bubble of 2008.

“Some of that stuff was up 400% during that tear,” he says. This is the dark side of higher crop prices: fertilizer costs invariably rise as fast as crop prices do, but are slow to decrease when crop prices fall. Sometimes this can actually wipe out any extra profit, and then some.

We talk about a few other farming issues before landing on a big one: who’s going to take over when he retires? (A slogan I heard locally, attributed to a banker, goes: “Farmers don’t retire, they die.”)

For the first time in our conversation Wise seems to droop a little. He looks away, he is silent for a time. This is something that a lot of people worry about: they worry that their own kids won’t want to, or be able to, continue on with the farm. And they worry that maybe farming on these plains is somehow doomed because of high costs, climate change, and lack of water.

“But I’ve got to be optimistic,” he says finally, perking up, his eyes flashing again, his mouth ever so slightly turned up into a smile, “if I weren’t, I wouldn’t have had my boy come back to the farm.”

Steve Sears is another man with something on his mind. With his twin brother, he runs a five-thousand-acre farm in Joes, Colorado, all planted to corn. It’s a beautiful, warm early autumn day when I arrive. Sears escorts me into his field office, a tidy multi-windowed square brick building furnished straight out of the Crate & Barrel and Pier One catalogs. It’s not what I expect; I feel like I’m at an architect’s office in Denver.

Sears is around sixty years old, but could easily pass for a man in his forties. He explains that he’ll probably be most helpful if I ask him questions, but then proceeds to tell me everything I need to know, and some things I don’t, in an almost nonstop, lively monologue. He touches on many issues: genetically engineered crops, information technology, apathetic farmers who “plagiarize” their neighbors’ techniques instead of doing what’s right for their land.

It becomes obvious, though, that he cares the most about the farmer’s image in the eyes of the public or, as he puts it, “the big urban/rural PR gap.” Farmers even get blamed for things like “frankenfood,” even if they’re not the ones who create it. He has a point. I note that farmers have no real advocates, no K Street lobbying muscle, which might help explain this. Sears slaps the table in excited agreement.

We move onto genetically engineered crops, a topic that he seems especially conflicted about. The very term scares people, he explains, yet drought resistant corn is “the next big horse race in agriculture” and is critically important in this era of bigger, longer, more devastating droughts and dwindling aquifers.

It’s evening now, and the good light is here so we step outside and I pose Sears here and there amongst his towering grain silos for some photos.

Steve Sears worries about the image of farmers.

Steve Sears worries about the image of farmers.

Years ago sugar beets were heavily planted in this area. Some farms still plant a circle or two. Just north of Kirk village I spy an irrigation rig, backlit by the setting sun as it moves around the circle of crops. Soon I’m slopping around making photos, just out of reach of the spray — mostly.

It’s nearly dark when I sense someone behind me. It’s Aaron Frank, who, with his father and brother, own and operate this farm. I half-expected him to poke fun at my muddy city shoes and damp shirt. Instead he earnestly tells me everything there is to know about irrigation, which, as it turned out, was more than I’d thought possible. For example: an eight section sprinkler for a single crop circle costs seventy grand, plus the cost of the well; electricity costs run over one thousand dollars a month per sprinkler; he can control all his irrigation rigs with his BlackBerry. The rigs have onboard satellite feeds, he explains, that relay operating info to an analysis center and then to the web. Bingo. From a tavern in Helsinki he could stop, start, adjust or otherwise tweak his considerable irrigation operations. With his phone. Even a techno-freak like myself finds this borderline amazing.

We’re swatting mosquitoes now. It’s time to go. “Stop by anytime,” he says, “anyone who wants to know about this is welcome.” He gestures at the beet field. I know he really means it. This sincerely, openness, and pride of place is a common trait among the people here on the plains. I found it very humbling.

An irrigation sprinkler works its magic around a circle of nearly mature sugar beets.

An irrigation sprinkler works its magic around a circle of nearly mature sugar beets.

It’s been corn and cattle for a week. For a change of pace I’m visiting Odie Dutton who runs a dairy farm — a real oddity out here — in neighboring Washington County. Driving up County Road 10, I see a man on a tractor waving wildly. Nobody is expecting us and I give a quizzical look to my guide for the day. “We better go see,” she says with a wry smile. And when we do we’re surprised to find Kevin Dutton, Odie’s son, jumping off the tractor and asking who we’re looking for. Apparently the odds are good you’re looking for a Dutton if you’re traveling on this road. As it turns out it’s his Dad’s eighty-fourth birthday and in minutes he arrives driving a stake body truck followed by his other son, Davon, and grandson, Tyler. Odie is wearing a colorful birthday shirt and soon we’re making pictures of the three generations of dairy farmers, camera-shy all, except for the grand patriarch.

It’s not long before I’m getting raised eyebrows from my guide, meaning it’s time to let these guys get back to work.

Later, up at the main house, I talk with Dutton about dairy farming out here on the high lonesome. It’s a simple business, he explains: grow the corn, alfalfa and oats, then keep the cows milked — he has 200 of them — then sell the milk.

A simple business but not an easy one. First, there’s the weather, an increasingly wild wild card. Then there’s the price he gets for his milk, which varies dramatically. Finding good hired help is a challenge, too, but one he’s solved recently by hiring “three Mexican woman milkers” who he emphatically endorses as better qualified for the job than men. “They’re gentler with the cows — if they need doctoring they’ll tend to it. Men just push on to get finished,” he says with a nearly straight face.

Lastly we talk about water. If there’s one large, overriding issue that’s common to every single person living and working on these prairies, it’s the future of water. Without it nothing is possible. And there’s a real and palpable concern among the farmers here that the water supply is in peril.

There’s been water trouble of the legal kind in Colorado for over a hundred years. For about that long, Kansas has maintained that surface water flow into Kansas has been decreasing because of Colorado’s overuse of groundwater. There has been a dizzying and complicated series of lawsuits between the two states during that time.

The biggest lawsuit was filed by Kansas against Colorado in 1985 and, many years later, yielded four legally binding opinions from the U.S. Supreme Court, all favorable to Kansas but some just barely. For instance, Kansas was awarded $34 million dollars for prior damages. Kansas sought much more than that, but wanted payment in water, not cash. Also, a system for calculating ongoing aquifer depletion in Colorado was approved by the court but not a specific remedy for damages. Surprisingly, the rulings did not settle the lawsuit and it remained on the active docket of the U.S. Supreme Court until the summer of 2009 when the two parties reached an agreement of sorts and dropped the suit.

An agreement of sorts. That’s where the problem lies now. The money part is easy; $34 million as restitution to Kansas for decades of “overuse” is a small price to pay. The rest — figuring out if and how much groundwater is getting “overused,” and getting enough water across the Kansas border from Colorado, as payment — is the tricky stuff. As is finding the water to make the payments with.

There is a plan to pump water up from the ground and give it to Kansas. That would mean Colorado would pump water from the underground Ogallala Aquifer — the same one that’s already being “overused” — and then pipe that water into Kansas. Few people I spoke with had anything good to say about this plan unless you count derisive laughter, snickering, and eye rolling. That plan is on hold now, though, and a Federal judge is trying to sort things out.

So the out-of-court agreement that settled the big lawsuit is up in the air. Water’s future, and groundwater irrigation in particular, in Colorado is once again frustratingly unclear. There’s concern among the Colorado farmers and ranchers that things could go sideways for them. It’s possible that some irrigation wells will be shut down to conserve water as an outcome of the judge’s ruling. Some wells have already been deactivated, voluntarily, such as a few on Bob and Phyllis Wood’s ranch in northeast Kit Carson County. “They pour cement into them, just to make sure,” Bob Wood told me.

Most farmers I spoke with didn’t think it likely that wells would be shut down in droves. Possible, but not likely. There’s too much at stake.

I ask Mr. Dutton what he thinks. He chuckles and starts to reply, then backtracks a little. Finally, he says that he has no idea except that things will have to change. Most people here, when asked the same question — what will happen to your water? — answer similarly. They know it will be a tough slog.

Technology will help save water, no doubt. It already has. Irrigation efficiency is closely monitored by sophisticated electronics; sprinklers use drop nozzles that spray close to crops, increasing accuracy and reducing water loss from evaporation; drought tolerant crops are continually in development. From what I could see, most farmers here practice good water conservation techniques. Steve Sears, for example, estimates he uses a quarter less water now by doing so.

Perhaps more crops could be dry farmed, without irrigation, using only natural rainfall. That’s considered a long shot, though. Regarding weather, it seems that weird is the new normal. It would be too risky to plant corn in places like Vona, Colorado, where it “averages” fifteen inches of rain but sometimes gets only three.

The locals know that their way of life and livelihood hang in the balance here, dependent on federal judges and agribusiness and volatile market prices, among other things. Still, they know a lost cause when they see it, and this isn’t one of those. They’ll wait and see and then they’ll live with the new reality.

They have a lot to worry about — crop prices, weather, bankers that don’t make loans, water — but they’re not much for hand wringing. Instead they get up every day and do what needs to be done. That’s just the way they are. I wouldn’t bet against them for all the water in Kansas.

The Duttons of County Road 10.

The Duttons of County Road 10.

Harry Cutting is a motion-addicted photographer based in Florida who travels whenever possible in search of stock photography for his business. Along the way he sometimes stumbles upon material for short articles. He can be found here and here.