Home on the Range

March 6th, 2018


Steamboat’s holds on tight to its western heritage despite challenges.

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Marsha Daughenbaugh was born and raised in the Elk River Valley on her family’s cattle and hay ranch and is now in the process of turning it over to her daughter and son-in-law, to be passed down to the third and fourth generation in her family.

Steamboat is steeped in its western heritage and has a long history in agriculture, and that heritage is as synonymous with Steamboat Springs as our famous powder and tree skiing. At the same time, rising property values, a higher cost of living, new development and an economy that is primarily sustained by recreation and resort has posed more challenges than ever before for multi-generational ranchers to hold onto their legacies.

Daughenbaugh not only grew up on a ranch, but is doing her part to help local ranch families as the Executive Director of the Community Agriculture Alliance, a local non-profit that is dedicated to preserving the vitality and continuity of local agriculture. Before that, she worked for the USDA for 25 years.

To say she knows a thing or two about local agriculture would be an understatement. Considering Steamboat’s strong identity with all things cowboy, there’s a lot more to finding your home on the range than meets the eye. We learned a few facts about ranching in Steamboat, past and present, that took us by surprise.

Ranching still comprises one-third of Steamboat’s economy.
“We don’t have to make it up because we actually are an agriculture community,” Daughenbaugh says. “We are a three-pronged economy that is based on agriculture, coal mining and recreation. Agriculture is part of what has kept Routt County going.”

Cows, sheep and strawberries? History of agriculture in the Yampa Valley.
Cattle ranching began in the Yampa Valley in the early 1870s, and other livestock like sheep go back to the turn of the twentieth century. But you might be amazed to learn about other crops that were raised here. Crops like wheat, barley, oats and strawberries (in case you were wondering where the name “Strawberry Park Hot Springs” came from) were also grown in large quantities for a time. “In the early 1900s, they were harvesting them and shipping them out on the train,” Daughenbaugh says. “The strawberries that grew in this area were so large they could fit inside of a tea cup and go edge to edge.”  Around the same time, ranchers started growing potatoes and peas because the soil had never been farmed, and so they were able to produce a big yield. Then came lettuce and spinach and by 1923 there were more than 2,000 acres under cultivation. As the area continued to grow, along came grains like wheat, oats and barley. “At one time we had 85,000 acres in those different commodities. That lasted until the 1970s when it became too expensive to grow and transport.”

Herding cattle continues until the cows come home.
“The cattle and the sheep have continued to do well here, and agriculture remains a good economic driver, despite all the development” Daughenbaugh says. “It’s still a very important part of the region.”

Rising real estate prices pose challenges to ranchers.
“Now that this area has been discovered for views and recreation, rising land prices have gotten so high that it is challenging to buy property and make it work, financially, for agriculture. We’ve seen a lot of our heritage ranches split apart a little bit because of land sales or outright sales. That part of that heritage is gone,” Daughenbaugh says. Though there is some hope. “Some of the buyers who come in and buy these properties recognize that it’s valuable to keep them in agriculture so they are hiring land managers or leasing them back to agriculture producers. But there is a lot of economic pressure in a community that continues to grow for recreation.” Hence, the push to “preserve the Western ranching heritage of the Yampa Valley.”

Steamboat cowboys are the real deal.
Steamboat doesn’t have to try too hard to maintain its western image. “We don’t have to make this up. Agriculture is embedded into our community, our history and our local culture. It is genuine,” Daughenbaugh says. “You see that in many of our events, from Winter Carnival to the Fourth of July. Western heritage is being celebrated, and we are keeping it going.” Ranchers always have been, and always will be part of the Steamboat community, serving on school boards, churches, and non-profits. Through the arts, western heritage is always being celebrated, in paintings, photographs and other mediums. “It’s very much authentic,” Daughenbaugh says.

From farm to table, via the internet.
For those who are looking for ways to support local farmers and ranchers, it is easier than ever via the Community Agriculture Alliance’s online farmer’s market. “We feature over 60 producers from Routt and Moffatt Counties,” Daughenbaugh says. Consumers can buy local products including everything from honey, herbs, produce and cheese, to pork, chicken, beef and lamb, and it all goes back to the farmers. Everything is USDA inspected and farmers receive 100 percent of their asking price. “Last year we paid out over $100,000 to local ranchers from what we sold on our web site.” The farm-to-table movement has also been helpful to ranchers who are working with local restaurants to provide locally sourced, high-quality product. Daughenbaugh helps facilitate these relationships. “It’s not always an easy process, but we are doing what we can to make it happen. There are some restaurants in town that really are walking the walk as well as talking the talk.”

For more information on Community Agriculture Alliance, visit their website at www.communityagalliance.org. 

Reproduced with permission from SteamboatSIR.com

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