Prairie land is the new frontier for second homes
June 15, 2005
A common element of America’s cultural iconography, along with baseball and Mom’s apple pie, is the family farm, a bucolic image, best viewed through a rose colored lens illusion of Dad and Mom, the kids and the grandparents, putting food on the table through the sweat of their brows, food that will always taste better and be better for you than any store-bought stuff.
If you know anything at all about farming, the reality is a bit less bucolic.
Divorce rates and suicide rates are typically higher on the farm than in the big city. Bankruptcy and financial disaster seem always around the corner.
There’s the hail that can wipe out a crop in a matter of minutes, and strange infestations, ranging from swarms of locusts to leafy spurge, a new weed which grows like wildfire but so far has proven resistant to herbicides and which grazing animals absolutely will not touch.
Pay attention driving west out of Denver ” the yellow splotches are leafy spurge which can easily overwhelm all other grasses along Interstate 70 along with a lot of good farmland if unchecked by some surprise.
The single-most frustrating part of farming, though, is the fact that the price of most everything involved in farming is out of control of the farmer.
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The price he receives for his grain, wheat for example, is decided, of all places, in a trading pit in Chicago by a bunch of yelling guys in smocks.
The price he pays for oil, a key element in not only fuel but the price of fertilizers as well, is decided by a bunch of guys in a luxury hotel in Vienna during the regular meetings of OPEC.
And while the price of a barrel of oil has risen tenfold in recent decades, the price of a bushel of wheat has hardly moved at all since the 1960s.
Hard red spring wheat in 2005 gets around $3.50 a bushel, pennies away from its price 40 years ago.
This year’s wheat harvest is expected to be a bumper crop and a record in Colorado, but with the surge in the commodity prices, like oil, that farmers will pay to produce that wheat, coupled with the rise in interest rates, the net income of Colorado farmers will rise only a little.
One saving grace for farmers is that the cost of farmland in the plains states has been slow to rise. The story’s different in Iowa, where using corn-based ethanol for gasoline has kept corn land expensive.
But the price of prairie farmland perfect for small grains but little else has started to rise, in some places quite dramatically.
Who’s buying up farmland, putting serious pressure on farm real estate prices for the first time in decades? If you live in Summit County, you already know the answer.
The same 9 percent of the population that controls more than 70 percent of the wealth in this country is not only building enormous second homes in the Colorado High Country, but they’re discovering that the same amount of money that will buy a home on a building site here will buy a quarter section of land ” 160 acres, for those of you not familiar with the Homestead Act of 1862 ” and a farmhouse.
Cityfolk are buying farms for the privacy the prairie will bring; others, outrageously enough, are buying farmland in the Dakotas and Nebraska as hunting preserves.
If your value system is sufficiently askew that you think nothing of spending a half million on a second home that will sit empty most of the year, then you’d think nothing of spending a half million to buy land to take it out of wheat production, and let it go fallow to attract pheasant, grouse and deer to hunt from a car.
Oh, to be lord of the manor, inviting guests to the fief for the hunt from the convenient height and angle afforded by the largest of SUVs.
In a perverse way, all this is actually good for the wheat farmers, those who already own their land.
Less production means a little less supply and potentially a higher price for a bushel of wheat. But more importantly, for those farmers who’ve had enough of hail and locusts and leafy spurge and prices dictated by Chicago and Vienna, this crazy deployment of wealth by the leisurely rich in this country has made it possible for them to sell the land and get out.
Happily, they won’t be reduced to beating the brush to flush the game birds in the new feudal heartland of America.
Marc Carlisle writesa Thursday column. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.