Joni Keefe
Special to The Aspen Times

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August 2, 2014
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Farms Finest: A Silt couple’s lifetimes devoted to the land

If we take time to talk with the older generations of ranchers and farmers, we will hear heartwarming stories about sustainable living. These are folks who have years invested in their communities, neighbors and land.

Unfortunately, such stories are slipping away and farms are not being passed on to the next generation as they once had. Because of this break in succession, we are losing not only the farms but also a valuable connection to the land. This is something that cannot be taught in college or learned from a textbook; it comes from years of working with the soil.

Today’s story is about a couple, Louis and Barbara Fenno, of Silt. While welcoming me into their farm kitchen, they shared rich memories of family ranching history. They gently filled in the gaps for each other as they reached back to 1912.

It was then, at the turn of the century, when three men — Louis’ grandfather and his two great uncles — homesteaded 40 acres each in Eagle County. There were no tractors, only horsepower and strong backs. At an elevation of 7,500 feet, the growing season was short and the list of suitable crops even shorter.

Iceberg lettuce was the cash crop they grew successfully, and wagon loads were delivered to the nearest railhead 8 rocky miles away. As time went on, beef cattle were raised along with hay and several fields of potatoes.

The winters were so severe that not only were the cattle moved to lower pastures, but the ranchers themselves left seeking the comfort of town during the coldest months. It was a physically challenging life for these early ranching families.

Over time, these three Fenno ranches grew, and around 1953, Louis’ father took over what had become a 1,100-acre ranch with the help of his three sons. With 1,100 acres, they now could support themselves better by simply raising beef cattle and hay.

When this generation of three boys finished high school, the ranch dynamics shifted again. One brother left to become a veterinarian and one to get a business major, and the youngest, Louis, stayed to continue ranching. His parents moved into town, and his father passed away at the early age of 58.

By 1956, Louis had now been out of high school two years and owned the car of his dreams, a secondhand blue Mercury. There was very little free time for this young man, but one day a friend introduced him to Barbara, an Edwards girl, and they began dating. Within a year, though, her family moved north because her father had found employment at a Uranium mill in Maybell near Craig. Peak haying season or not, the blue Mercury (with Louis) was quickly made available and assisted with the family’s move.

There were no phones at that time, so staying in contact required frequent visits. Soon they were married, and she moved to the Eagle ranch and began another Fenno ranching generation, this time raising four daughters.

When the two brothers graduated, they returned and bought even more land in the area, greatly increasing their combined hay and livestock business. Louis did not care to become so big and heard about land for sale in a more favorable climate over on Silt Mesa, 75 miles southwest. He sold the original ranch to the enterprising brothers, and in 1990, this family of six and 90 head of cattle moved to begin working a new ranch raising hay and feed corn for their livestock.

Today Louis and Barbara continue to make their living from the land. They have worked together “doing what they could with what they had.” They boasted that after 53 years of marriage, they still hold hands and sit beside each other on the couch. They also have bragging rights to eight great-grandchildren.

We talked about where the girls are today and how one misses ranching so she returns to help with haying. There is little outside help, and they work together sunrise to sundown. They talked about the life-sustaining Harvey Gap reservoir and a tunnel “as tall as a man” that was blasted into the mountains to bring water over to Silt’s irrigation ditches.

They shared stories about weather and how it affects crops, cattle and their own lives. I learned about grass and alfalfa mixes, seed and reseeding, weevils, calving, hay crops, branding and cattle moving. They explained how working “with nature” has always been their best-laid plan. Together the Fennos continue to make a sustainable and rewarding life while quietly working their land.

Joni Keefe moved to the Roaring Fork Valley after a career in landscape design. She is passionate about local food and agriculture. For more information, her website is FarmsFinest.com, or follow her on Twitter. Connect at joni@farmsfinest.com.


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The Aspen Times Updated Aug 2, 2014 08:48PM Published Aug 4, 2014 01:23PM Copyright 2014 The Aspen Times. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.