Plenty of farm, ranch and open land to escape city life
Farm & Ranch
It’s not hard to find farm and ranch land in Mesa County. Right now, there are more than a hundred rural properties available for sale, and perhaps thousands of other small acreage parcels not for sale, with owners who are happily raising horses, cows, alpacas, corn, hay, grass, peaches, hops or grapes.
There are many reasons for wanting to own farm and ranch land. Some people yearn for space, while others want to grow something beyond grass. Horse lovers need room for the horses, and perhaps some pasture or a few acres planted in hay to help feed those four-legged eating machines.
The views, tranquility and the seemingly laid-back lifestyle may also beckon, especially to potential buyers who live in subdivisions with small lots and lots of noise.
While many of the property owners who live on rural properties fall into the category of hobby farmers rather than farmers who make their living off their land, it is possible to earn a living in agriculture in Mesa County and Western Colorado. Five generations of peach growers in Palisade aren’t living on views and a lifestyle. Likewise, the fairly new cattle barn in Loma wasn’t built to capitalize on the area’s tranquility and privacy.
That said, if making a comfortable living farming is a buyer’s biggest goal, he should move to the Midwest. Farming is easier and land is cheaper.
Many of us who live in Mesa County, however, do so because this section of Colorado has claimed our hearts, and those who buy farm and ranch property want to claim a little piece of the land and the lifestyle. And perhaps they’ve fallen in love with the romance of living somewhere that allows them to grow a few acres of hay or peaches.
“We talk to people frequently who want to do something like that,” said Bob Hammon, CSU extension agent with the Tri River Area, which serves Mesa, Delta and Montrose County. “I try to be realistic and talk them out of it. Owning property is a huge commitment of time and money.”
The majority of small acreage property owners who call the extension office for advice want to know about pasture and grazing.
“Overgrazing on small acreage is a huge issue,” said Doug Dean, the interim director and livestock/range management agent. “People need to understand how much forage a pasture will actually produce and realize how much a horse eats.”
According to Dean, typical horses eat about 30 pounds of forage a day, or about 11,000 pounds annually. A well-managed irrigated pasture has the potential to produce between 2,000 and 6,000 pounds of forage per acre annually.
“You don’t want to take all of that,” Dean said. “You take half and leave half, leave enough for the plant to regrow. Horses are bad about trampling, so you get about 35 to 40 percent.”
CSU extension publishes a Colorado forage guide to help residents plan pastures and figure out how many animals can be put on a piece of land. The guide is available at the extension office and can also be downloaded from the website for free.
A horse property that includes an irrigated hay field might be a better option, but cutting and baling the hay could be a challenge, unless the five-acre horse property comes with a neighbor who grows hay commercially and has both the necessary equipment and a willingness to help his neighbor.
“Hay becomes feasible on a 40- to 50-acre parcel of land,” said Isaac Munoz, the small acreage specialist at CSU Tri River extension. Hay might be feasible on smaller parcels, but the equipment needed for cutting and baling is too expensive and impractical to buy if an owner only has a few acres of hay.
CSU also supports other agricultural efforts, and has extensive literature to help those who are interested in growing fruit trees, as well as several staff members at the Orchard Mesa Research Center who conduct ongoing research on fruit trees and wine grapes.
A history of peach production that goes back for more than a century lends credence to the idea that growing peaches can be a viable way to make a living. It’s not always a comfortable living, especially in those years when a spring freeze kills the majority of the crop, but Colorado peaches have a good reputation and bring a decent price on the market.
In a good year, a mature orchard with about 400 trees per acre may gross between $15,000 and $18,000 per acre, but that’s a gross figure, and doesn’t take expenses into consideration. Irrigation, labor, pest control, marketing and frost protection are all just some of the costs that must be accounted for yearly. New trees and new equipment also take a bite out of the gross profit.
Size matters when it comes to a fruit orchard. A new wind machine might cost $25,000, but if it saves a 20-acre crop, it paid for itself. It’s not such a practical expense for the hobby farmer with an acre of peaches.
“With 20 acres, you can sell semi loads. With one acre, you sell pickup loads,” said Hammon. “With 20 acres, you can afford labor. With one acre, you are the labor.”
Although grapes grow in western Colorado, the more traditional vinifera varieties, i.e., those old-world classics like bordeaux and cabernet sauvignon, aren’t particularly fond of the dry conditions the Grand Valley experiences during the winter, and the sub-zero temperatures that come with a prolonged inversion can inflict a lot of damage. Winter kill can reduce total yields, which cuts into profits. Unfortunately, those are the types of grapes that the pioneer wine makers and grape growers began planting a few decades ago. Some growers and winemakers have begun experimenting with more hybrid grape varieties in hopes of finding a grape that’s more suitable to the winter in western Colorado.
Hops are a new crop in western Colorado, and one that’s showing a lot of promise.
“You can grow them anywhere in the Grand Valley as long as you’ve got water,” said Ron Godin, CSU Tri River extension agent. Although hops are perennial, they’re not as susceptible to spring freezes as fruit trees and don’t suffer winter kill like grapes. They’re also a lot of work. But the outlook is good for Colorado hops.
“You can make a really good living on 10 acres,” said Godin, who said that although Mesa, Delta and Montrose Counties combined only have about 75 acres devoted to hops, he expects that the total gross sales for the year will be more than a million dollars. They are not, however, suitable for a hobby farmer.
“If it’s a hobby and you’ve got a day job, you’re going to be at the farm every hour that you’re not on your day job,” Godin said. On the bright side, Godin also said, “I don’t see a downturn in hops production. We’ve got 10 years of growth, maybe more. There is no limit to the demand. Craft brewers want local hops.”
Owning farm or ranch land can be extremely rewarding and can give a family a great lifestyle. It’s not, however, for the fainthearted, or for those who don’t like physical activity. There are also plenty of rural lots and areas where residents don’t have to grow anything other than grass, flowers or weeds (they grow even when they’re not planted or wanted), which may be a more attractive option for city dwellers who simply want space.