Jim Stewart, Jimmy, to his friends and neighbors, has seen a lot of change in the world. For the most part his world is a piece of ground, a couple of hundred acres in the Shavano Valley, out at the end of Spring Creek Road west of Montrose.
“It’s not really Spring Creek Road that ends up there on the mesa,” he says. “But they put an overlay of the Montrose County roads on a map and this road match up the Spring Creek so I live on Spring Creek Road now.”
But if you want to push the point, the gravel road is just a big zig-zag in Shavano Valley Road, the right of way that more or less runs north from the 90 Road west of Montrose to Kiowa Road, a distance of about 10 miles.
Jim is the fourth generation of his family to farm/ranch in the Shavano Valley land and there are two more generations behind him with his daughter and her husband and Jim’s grandchildren.
“I came to this house when I was a little guy,” he says. “My dad had been working in the mines at Silverton. He hated the job. He was one of the guys who scraped the ore out of the rocks. He always had water and mud on him and he was breathing the dusty air.”
Once in the Shavano Valley the Stewart family’s fortune was only slightly better.
“Dad said he wasn’t happy with the living they were making there in the early 50s, but he said that he was not going back to the mine,” Jim recalls.
“So we started raising sugar beets. They did really well here and we had plenty of water,” Jim says. The valley is on the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association (UVWUA) system. The B North Lateral ditch delivers water to the top of the mesa, just above Stewart’s Slash-Lazy K-Slash headquarters. A pipe drops it into the ditch that serves the property. The UVWUA West Canal runs down the west side of the valley as well.
Sugar beet farming and the production of other row crops dates back to pre-Gunnison Tunnel days. Beets date to 1898. The beets from the Montrose area went by rail to Grand Junction. Then, beginning in 1920, to a processing plant opened in Delta.
“When we grew sugar beets, we harvested them ourselves and took our beets to the rail in Montrose. From there they went to Delta,” Jim says. “Then they closed that plant in 1977 and times got bad.”
A few farmers in the valley got in on the deal when the Coors brewery offered contracts to grow Monrovian barley for their beer, but the Stewarts and several others turned to cattle ranching. Jim was just out of high school and the future was uncertain. But his choice was the farm.
“I never thought of doing anything else. This is my home and my life and we just had to make some changes,” he says.
So cows became the cash crop. And, as anyone in the cattle business knows, it is not a rags to riches kind of thing for small operators. The Stewart family has 236 head, which are now on summer range in Nucla on the other side of the Plateau.
“While they are up there I am a farmer again for a while,” Jim says. What he means is that he spends the summer growing the feed for next winter. He has about 150 acres that he irrigates to grow alfalfa and silage corn. That task means making sure he keeps the water flowing through his system for those crops.
Come November, Jim and his family and a couple of neighbors will relive a ritual that Jim keeps from his earlier years as a cowman. He’ll drive those 236 head out of the Nucla pastures to the top of the Plateau and right up the Dave Wood Road.
As Jim explained the drive, an ancient Toyota Tacoma pulls up and we exchange greetings with another Shavano cattle grower, Gary Gleason. Gleason’s roots in the Valley date back to 1908. Gleason is passionate man when it comes to the cowman lifestyle.
“I am like Jimmy, I have never considered doing anything else,” he said with noticeable conviction. His operation is like Stewart’s; he summers up on the Plateau and feeds in the winter in the valley. The difference is he trucks his cows back and forth.
“It’s not an easy life, but I love it. Guys like Jimmy and I who grow our own feed and do our own work can make a living,” Gleason said. He said that people who borrow a lot of money and don’t get their own hands dirty won’t be successful.
Technology also has made some aspects of their hardscrabble existence easier. One of the tools is the video auction.
“Using video or pictures of your cows you can put them on the block without having to haul to them them to an auction yard,” Jim explains. There are a couple of big pluses to that right out of the box. Besides not having to load his cattle into a truck and haul them, sometimes hundreds of miles, to an auction yard. Besides avoiding the expense, it is less stress for the animals who lose weight or are injured during transport. They don’t show as well as they do in their home environment.
Jim uses Superior Livestock located in Fort Worth, Texas. He sends the company his images or videos and sets up an online auction lot for his livestock.
“I log into the site and my auction. I am also on the phone. I can watch the bidding and I can control what’s happening with my cows,” he says. Once he agrees to sell his stock, he gets a grace period to back out, otherwise in a few days, his check arrives and his cattle head for the buyer’s location. Commissions are about the same as a live auction, but the seller doesn’t ship his cattle until he knows he is getting paid. He also doesn’t have the cost of going to the auction or the uncertainty of a blind phone presence while the bidding is going on.
What are the concerns of two Shavano Valley cowmen in the current world?
“It is hard to make sense of the market most of the time,” Gleason says. “You get something like a fire at one packing house and the whole industry goes nuts.”
“Prices right now are not very good,” says Jim “The uncertainty of the weather is always a concern.”
Both of them agree that, while water has been an issue for several years, it is not now.
“This is the first year in a long time that we have not been restricted in our water use,” Jim says.
“I think there still needs to be a lot of work done on how we manage our water in Colorado,” Gleason says. It is his opinion that way too much water gets wasted. But that is a discussion for another day.
Michael A. Cox is a Montrose-based content provider. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org