Is there a big inventory of farms for sale on the Western Slope?
Why would anybody on the Western Slope sell his ranch?
Ask Joseph C. (Joey) Burns those questions and you will get book, chapter, and verse on the land, the business, and perhaps the future of farming and ranching in Western Colorado. Burns isn’t a native to the area but has spent half of his 51 years here as a partner and then sole owner of Eagle Land Brokerage.
He came from Arizona where his family grew hay and cotton in the desert, west of Phoenix near a little town called Buckeye. But, Joey, as nearly everyone calls him, really wasn’t a desert kind of guy. So in the mid-90s he, his wife, and their youngsters made the pilgrimage to the high country.
“My first love is the land brokerage business, but I have done a number of things,” he says. “I ran cows for awhile, did some farming, and some development.”
So, is there a big inventory of farms for sale?
“Not really,” Joey says. What we do have are some farms in transition. There are farms where the next generation isn’t going to stay or has already left the property and the family is selling. There are health issues as well.
“We also have some farms here that are owned by people who are not farmers but always thought that it would be a good life. So they bought farms or ground and things didn’t go as they expected,” Joey says of what some call the “Green Acres” effect. Those farms end up as a listing on Joey’s web page.
“I think the average non-farmer has no idea how hard it is to operate a farm or to make a living with a cattle ranch,” Joey says. The Western Slope offers special challenges.
“Let’s take a cattle ranch in, say, Nebraska,” he begins. “Over there you can put your cows out on the pasture and watch them with binoculars from your front porch.”
In Nebraska the cow never leaves your land, they live, breed, give birth, grow up, and get shipped from the same place.
“Now let’s talk about a family ranch here. A ranch in Montrose or Delta County needs a good home winter ground. In winter the cows eat the feed they are given, which in many cases the ranchers grew and cut on the same ground during the spring and summer,” Burns explains. In the spring and summer, the cows need to be moved to the high country, either to private ground which the rancher owns, leases, or has a permit to graze from the Forest Service or the BLM.
The summer range costs money. Hauling, or in a few cases, driving the cows to it costs money. Hauling a trailer full of cows from Shavano Valley to the top of the Uncompahgre Plateau runs about $500. Hauling stresses the animals and sometimes they get sick – another expense. Since the spring/summer range is essentially open wildland, cattle get lost or stolen. That adds to the overhead.
And “big” is not necessarily easier to manage for profit. Burns says that some of the big ranch properties that he has brokered are portfolio buys.
“The investors like the big mountain views but they want the ranch to make money or at least support itself,” he says. Burns says it is hard to make the numbers work on some of the ranches.
“The operation has to work really hard to avoid the investor having to put in extra money to keep it going,” Burns says. Often times it just doesn’t work and the ranch changes hands. Some of the outfits in the area have changed hands as often as every four or five years.
Many of the small operators, farmers and ranchers, face uncertain futures because overhead just drains the cash and it is hard for a family to make a living. They live the lifestyle they love, but in many cases, somebody in the family goes to town and gets a job or has another business.
The hemp “gold rush” brought a lot of people into farm ground investing.
“They had the idea that they could buy the ground and pay for it with the return on hemp which was expected to be high,” says Burns. “I was excited about the hemp thing because Montrose needs something like hemp as an industry.” Hemp is looked on as perhaps being something like the Coors Barley business or the sugar beet era.
On the downside, the hemp experiment brought a lot of excited and energetic young people to farming. The problem was they were not farmers, the jacks of all trades, who could keep an operation going, fix anything, and work 18 hour days. They also lacked sufficient knowledge and experience.
“There will be some people who get hurt,” Burns says. But he is still optimistic about the future of hemp.
While there is certainly no glut when it comes to ag land in our area, Burns says there are some farms and ranches that were bought in the 90s by some of the wealthy dot com and entertainment types.
“Those properties are coming back on the market. Some of them are pretty special places,” Burns says. He doesn’t see a glut coming, however.
“An a-plus ranch or farm is always an a-plus and there are buyers for them,” he says.
If you are in the market, Joey has an excellent buy up on the Plateau. The infamous Elk Mountain Resort is a 15-year-old property that is legend on the Western Slope. Burns says the original owner spent $60 million on it. There are 275 deeded acres, 21 luxury lodges, a 20,000 square-foot main lodge, and a 15,500 square-foot indoor tactical shooting range. It can be yours for only $17,950,000.