Family earns Colorado Rancher of the Year honors
November 21, 2011
NEW CASTLE, Colo. – For the second time in as many years, a ranching family from the Grand Hogback area north of New Castle has been named Rancher of the Year by the Colorado Association of Conservation Districts, a branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
This year the honor goes to the family of Mildred Roberts, who at the age of 87 can still be found on the family ranch founded in the 1960s by her and her late husband, Elmer, on land adjacent to Harvey Gap Reservoir.
“She still lives there, going strong,” said her daughter-in-law, Carla Roberts, who, with her husband, Warren, lives a short distance down County Road 245 from the Home Ranch. There currently are four generations of Robertses working the family business.
The family, including Warren’s and Carla’s kids and grandkids, Warren’s brother Calvin and his wife, kids and grandkids, trooped over to Loveland on Nov. 16 to receive the award at a special ceremony.
It was one of several awards handed out for various agricultural accomplishments by farmers, ranchers and even corporations around Colorado.
Two years ago, the Rancher of the Year award went to the Dodo family, another local ranching dynasty operating in the high country north of New Castle.
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Both Carla and Warren Roberts are Colorado natives – he has lived on or near the Home Ranch all his life, while she was born and raised in Gypsum. Their children – Katie, 27, Derek, 24, and Bryce, 15 – grew up beneath the looming presence of the steep, slabbed hillside that rises behind the house, helping care for thousands of sheep and, occasionally, a few cattle.
Carla, 55, and Warren, 56, are proud of the family’s legacy of sheep ranching, which dates back to a well-remembered date in American history, Warren recalled.
“My dad bought the band of sheep [roughly a thousand head] on the day [former President John] Kennedy was shot,” he said (Nov. 22, 1963), “so he always remembered that date.”
Although he went to college for degrees in engineering and accounting, and met Carla in the process, Warren mused that he does not recall ever thinking he would do anything besides ranching.
“I don’t think I had any other ideas,” he said. “I sure wasn’t going to be an engineer, or an accountant. I was too much of an outdoors [guy].”
Carla, however, remembered a day when, coming home for a visit from college, she and Warren and Elmer were driving a rickety water truck up to their grazing permit along the Buford Road.
“He turned to Warren and said, ‘Are you coming back [to take over the ranch)? Because if you’re not, I’m going to sell the sheep.'”
Warren conceded that Carla’s memory was probably better than his, but added, “I don’t think he [Elmer] ever would have [sold the sheep]. That was just his way of … that was just his nature.”
The family ranching business started, Warren recalled, in the 1950s.
His dad, who had grown up “very, very poor” near Carbondale during the Great Depression, tried his hand at a number of trades over the years, including hauling coal, laying bricks, working the limestone quarry north of Glenwood Springs, and running a Standard Oil gas station where the Tamarack Mall now stands on Grand Avenue.
But in the early 1950s, Warren said, his dad homesteaded 1,200 acres now known as the Cozy Point and Wildcat areas near Aspen and Snowmass.
“But he couldn’t make a go of it,” Warren said regretfully, adding that his dad sold the land for “about $30,000” and used that money to buy 40 acres on Silt Mesa and, later, the 240-acre Home Ranch and the initial herd of sheep.
He said Carla’s grandfather also was in the ranching business, and with the late Elmer Bair was one of the first ranchers to bring sheep to the Western Slope of Colorado.
“They got into some real wars,” he said of his wife’s predecessors, “gunfights and everything” to overcome the resistance of local cattlemen.
As for the Robertses’ concern, Warren said, “I’ve been in the sheep business basically as long as they were,” referring to his mom and dad. He explained that he had been born about the same time that the sheep were purchased, and that over the years they have been adding to the holdings until now they have roughly 1,700 acres in private holdings, 1,500 under lease and 25,000 acres of federal grazing permits on land owned by the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management.
Remembering those days, he said, “Well, there was no traffic to speak of.” He recalled when his aunt and uncle would drive over from their home on the Front Range, the family would wait outside until they caught sight of a vehicle, and would know it was them because “nobody ever drove up here.”
He started driving the ranch tractor at the age of 7, and rolled it accidentally a year later, but he learned the business from the ground up.
“I never missed a day of school in 11 years,” he said with a smile. “If I stayed home, I had to work.”
He learned to drive a car when his grandmother put him behind the wheel of her 1947 Ford 2-door coup when he was about 13.
“It was a very free life,” Warren said of his childhood, noting that from his father he learned to “love God, love family, work hard, save money and help people,” life rules that are carved on his father’s tombstone.
“When you write about all this, give all the credit to my mom and dad,” he said during an interview at his home. “They did the real work.”
“We didn’t even know we were in the running,” Warren said of the award, giving credit for the recognition to Sharie Prow, district manager of the Bookcliff, Mount Sopris and South Side Conservation Districts, whose office is in Glenwood Springs.
Prow nominated the Roberts ranching family for the award, Warren said, as she had the Dodo family two years earlier.
Prow, in an email, explained that there are 76 conservation districts in the state of Colorado, making up nine different watersheds, and that the nominations for the annual award come from those districts.
Nominating criteria include conservation practices used in the ranching operation; outreach such as tours and school field days; the duration and size of the ranching operation; and “any long term conservation goals and plans” that the rancher can demonstrate.
“This year there was tough competition, with seven ranching families to choose from seven different watersheds,” Prow said of the judging.
Aside from recognition at a Garfield County event on Nov. 4 and the statewide event on Nov. 16, she said, the Robertses will be honored at the National Western Stock Show in January.
“It is really an honor not only for the family but for our office and Bookcliff Conservation District to work with such a dedicated family,” Prow wrote.