Historical Census of Agriculture shows ranching’s long decline in Pitkin County
loss of farmland in Pitkin county
1959 111,828 acres
Farming isn’t dead yet in Pitkin County, even though most big spreads are now owned by gentlemen ranchers harvesting tax breaks rather than crops.
The number of farms in the county held steady at 82 between 2007 and 2012, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s latest census. The census of agriculture is conducted every five years. The latest was released in May and reflects findings from a 2012 survey.
The 82 farms accounted for 32,094 acres of land in 2012, up slightly from 28,539 acres in 2007.
Prior censuses show the sharp decline of farming and ranching in Pitkin County as Aspen’s success as a ski resort exploded in the late 1960s and carried into the ’70s.
Although there were fewer farms in Pitkin County in 1959 than today, the acreage dedicated to farming used to be much greater. There were 75 farms and ranches covering 111,828 acres in 1959, according to the census. That means nearly 80,000 acres or 71 percent of land used by farmers and ranchers 55 years ago is now out of production.
The long, steady decline was underway by the early 1960s. The 1964 census of agriculture shows there were 68 farms and ranches in Pitkin County working 104,726 acres — a modest decrease from five years before.
The dramatic fall came over the following five years. By 1969, the census reflected 52 farms using only 33,125 acres. Snowmass Ski Resort was developed during that period, and Aspen’s influence radiated out farther into the rural lands.
Cattle inventory consistent
Despite the decline in acreage in farming, cattle production has remained surprisingly consistent in Pitkin County over the past 45 years.
There were 58 cattle ranchers in Pitkin County in 1959 with an inventory of 3,704 cattle and calves. The number dropped off slightly over the next 10 years. There were 30 cattle ranches with an inventory of 3,054 animals in 1969.
The beef production is higher now in Pitkin County than it was during that golden age of agriculture. There were only 23 cattle-ranch operators in 2012, but they had an inventory of 3,828 cattle and calves, the latest census found.
The dollar amount of all sales of agricultural products in Pitkin County was $3 million in 2012 compared with $2.02 million in 2007. The increase coincides with a higher number of cattle sold in 2012 than five years earlier.
The number of farms and ranches raising cattle in Pitkin County fell from 34 in 2007 to 23 in 2012, the census showed. However, the inventory of cattle and calves increased over that period.
There were 2,525 cattle and calves owned by ranchers in 2007. That soared by 1,303 animals, or 51 percent, to 3,828 in 2012, according to the census. The report had no explanation for the increase.
The cattle and calf inventory dropped by 4 percent over that period in Colorado as a whole, and it dropped in neighboring counties.
Eagle County’s cattle and calf inventory fell from 6,166 in 2007 to 5,876 in 2012.
Garfield County’s cattle and calf inventory dropped from 19,238 in 2007 to 18,443 five years later.
High land values
Pitkin County had one of the highest estimated market values of land and buildings for agricultural lands per acre among the 64 Colorado counties, the census shows. The estimated market value per acre was $5,597 in Pitkin County. Only Boulder and Denver counties had a greater estimated value per acre.
The market value of land for agriculture uses doesn’t necessarily correspond to the higher sales prices fetched for residential use. And that explains the loss of so much farmland over the past six decades. Farmers and ranchers could make a lot more money selling land to developers than they could by selling cattle to feedlots.
In contrast to Pitkin County, the estimated value of land and buildings per acre of agricultural land in Colorado was $1,280. Baca County in southeastern Colorado has the most farmland at 1.5 million acres, but the market value of land and buildings per acre is just $556.
The census of agriculture breaks down data for every county in the country. It can be found at http://www.agcensus.usda.gov/Publications/2012.
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