STATE OF AGRICULTURE
(Editor’s note: This article is part of a series focused on the state of agriculture in the Gunnison Valley which will appear periodically.)
After he was raised on a ranch outside of Gunnison, Bruce Allen waved goodbye to the valley’s hay meadows in 2002 with a full-ride scholarship to Colorado School of Mines. The academic challenge proved satisfying for awhile.
But the big-city experience made him think long and hard about where he wanted to be — and the lifestyle he wanted to live. Ultimately, he graduated from Colorado State University (CSU) with a degree in animal science and agricultural business.
“I grew up in a family culture of making sure that we had permission to explore the world,” he said. “There was definitely a welcome mat to come back, but there was no expectation, and honestly, growing up in agriculture, there are some distinct challenges that impact the quality of life of people on these farms and ranches, and I didn’t see a lot of economic opportunity.”
Allen, however, found that “place” flows deep within his veins. He wanted to be amid the community working to address agriculture’s most daunting challenges.
Today, Allen is part of the management team of his family’s company, Ralph R. Allen and Sons, Inc., which ranches ground from Gunnison to north of Crested Butte. The 33-year-old also is active in local causes impacting the industry, serving on the boards of the Gunnison Ranchland Conservation Legacy, Gunnison County Stockgrowers and the marketing co-op to which his family’s company belongs, as well as on the working group of the Gunnison Public Land Initiative.
However, Allen is an outlier within his family. While his parents’ generation grew up on the ranch, he has cousins spread from Los Angeles and New York to Atlanta. He’s the only member of his generation seated on the Allen and Sons board.
“While the family model has served us well in the past, I think there’s going to have to be an evolution there,” he said.
Stories like Allen’s are increasingly common in the Gunnison Valley. While some members of the younger generation return to help manage the family’s ranch — or never leave in the first place — many others pursue dreams far away from the nonstop toil that is agriculture.
Other longtime ranching families in the valley aren’t so lucky as to have sons, daughters, nieces or nephews willing to pick up the reins of the operation. Still, for ranchland to remain productive, somebody has to work it. This has opened the door for young ranchers who don’t own land but are just as passionate about growing food to feed the masses.
“It’s cost-prohibitive,” said Stacy McPhail, executive director of the nonprofit Legacy, about getting one’s start in agriculture in the Gunnison Valley today. “Having new folks come in is a difficulty.”
‘Something you learn to love’
Similar to Allen, 24-yearold Hannah Cranor returned to Gunnison to help run her family’s small cow-calf operation after graduating from the University of Wyoming last year with a degree in agricultural business.
After participating in 4-H for 11 years, there was little question about the career path that Cranor would pursue.
“It’s something you learn to love,” she said. “I love working with animals and working with the land, and I think it’s important that Gunnison stay an ag community.”
To help ensure that much, the Cranors are in the process of placing their ranch under conservation easement — a decision intended to help generate income to ensure the operation’s survival.
“We waited until the kids were old enough to make the decision,” said Hannah’s mother, Margaret Cranor. “For the kids, it really was important to keep it a ranch.”
Yet, Hannah Cranor’s four siblings are presently living throughout the country. In their absence, Hannah is helping her dad, Walt, with decision-making — and even thinking about her own niche of a business at the ranch. She wants to breed bigframed, high-altitude resilient Charolais bulls.
“This is the perfect place to breed purebred (bulls),” she said looking across the family’s 631 acres tucked against the northern slope of Signal Peak. “You can do it with a lot less animals.”
However, not every rancher is lucky to have family land on which to return.
Randy Pool, 38, grew up in Gunnison, watching his step-father manage a ranch up the Ohio Creek Valley. He too studied animal science at CSU before returning to the Gunnison Valley.
“Ever since I was little, it was just in my blood. It was always something I was interested in,” he said. “It still is a way of life but I didn’t know the business part of it then. I just enjoyed feeding cattle and just being outside.”
For eight years after college, Pool managed a large ranch for an out-of-state owner up the Ohio Creek Valley before setting out on his own. Currently, Pool leases “a handful” of ranch properties comprising about 7,000 acres, because buying land is out of the question.
“It’s pretty simple,” he said. “Financially, it just doesn’t work. Agriculture just can’t buy $5,000 and $10,000 an acre ground. It’s not even an option.”
Helping keep land productive
Yet, at the same time highpriced land has presented an obstacle, absentee ownership and aging ranchers have resulted in a need for someone to pick up the reins.
For Pool, it’s the perfect situation. About half of the land on which he runs cattle he leases from longtime ranching families that still own ground but have no one to manage it. The other half he leases from absentee owners.
Agricultural leaders expect such arrangement to become more prevalent in coming years.
“Where I grew up, up Ohio Creek, there were nine or 10 ranches between town and where we lived, and now there’s two or three,” Pool said. “A lot of that is still agriculture and open, but it’s just changed. The families aren’t there anymore and a lot of it has been developed.”
Historically, Legacy has worked to broker conservation easements covering tens of thousands of acres in the valley. The aforementioned changes, however, have led the group to explore a new direction for its future — helping ensure that ranches remain productive.
That could mean facilitating long-term leases or cooperative agreements. The concept is currently being ironed out by an appraiser, CPA and an attorney, said Executive Director McPhail.
“Realistically, the biggest question is, we have all these conserved ranches, does that help enough with supporting this industry in our area?” she posed. “We look at what it’s going to be like in 10 or 15 years. Prices are going to go up. We don’t want to see that some of the ranches we have under conservation easement go out of agricultural production.”
(Will Shoemaker can be contacted at 970.641.1414 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)