Losing Ground: Colorado's Vanishing Agricultural Landscape

Released by: Environment Colorado

Executive Summary

Colorado’s finest ranches and croplands are disappearing faster than ever before. Since 1992, Colorado has lost 2.89 million acres of agricultural land. Increased rural large-lot development and weakening agricultural economies contribute to the rapid loss of agricultural land, now nearly 690 acres per day, threatening the future of rural Colorado, our statewide economy, and key natural resources.

Summary of Agricultural Land Loss 
Between 1997 and 2002 Colorado lost 1.26 million acres of agricultural land, averaging 690 acres per day. Colorado is third in the nation, behind Texas and New Mexico, for overall agricultural land lost in the past five years.

• The state’s total acreage of cultivated cropland declined by 29%.

• Mesa County lost 17,000 acres; Elbert County lost 35,000 acres.

• The Eastern Plain counties of Lincoln, Kit Carson, and Cheyenne lost over 400,000 acres combined.

Between 1987 and 2002: 
• Colorado lost over 2.5 million acres of agricultural land with an average of 460 acres per day.

• Weld County, the state’s highest and the nation’s fifth highest grossing county in agricultural sales, lost 271,491 acres of agricultural land. Yuma County, Colorado’s second highest grossing county in agriculture sales, lost 112,121 acres of agricultural land.

• El Paso and Pueblo counties lost 11% and 9% respectively of their total agricultural land, almost 200,000 acres combined.

• La Plata and Larimer counties lost over 50,000 acres each.

• The resort communities were hit particularly hard, led by Eagle County which lost 46% of its agricultural land in this 15 year period.

Future Projections If present trends continue, Colorado will continue to lose considerable amounts of agricultural land in the coming decades.

• By 2022 Colorado will lose 3.1 million more acres of agricultural land.

• Large-lot, rural development is projected to increase by at least 42%; close to 3 million acres of rural land will be developed before 2030.

• Ranchland loss will transform the geography of the state. For instance, 17% of the land area in Saguache and 21% in Montrose County would be transformed from today’s usage.

Why Colorado is Losing Agricultural Land 
Colorado is losing a large portion of its agricultural land to rural development and faltering agricultural economies.

The biggest threat to agricultural land is large-lot residential development, commonly classified as one house per 2 to 40 acres. Between 1960 and 1990 the land area developed into ex-urban homes and rural ranchettes grew three times faster than the population growth rate.

Land policy regulates development under 35 acres, but larger lots are exempt from the subdivision review process. Currently, subdivisions 35 acres and greater are proliferating in Colorado’s open spaces.1 Between 1972 and 2000, 2 million acres of agricultural land was lost in tracts sized just big enough to avoid regulation.

Farmers and ranchers face increasing economic pressure to sell as farm and ranch land is appreciating in value. The average real estate value for agricultural land increased 16% between 1999 and 2003, to $730 per acre. The yearly interest accrued from the profits of a multi-million dollar sale of ranchland is often more than property owners can earn from ranching in that same year.

In addition, agriculture in Colorado has become relatively less profitable in recent years. While a drought plagued producers in 2002, overall farm sales in real dollars have been in a steady decline since 1990. In 2002, 60% of Colorado’s farms and ranches had total annual sales of less than $10,000. Since 1992 the average farm size has decreased by 21%, and between 1997 and 2002 the amount of debt versus equity for Colorado farms rose to 18% as average production costs increased.

Social factors also influence trends in rural areas. Many children of farmers and ranchers are choosing careers outside of agriculture, leaving no one to operate family farms. The average age of farmers is 55, up from below 50 in 1972.

Impacts 
Colorado’s farm and ranchlands are some of the state’s most valuable assets; the loss of this scenic open space impacts Coloradans’ quality of life as well as threatens those who profit economically from Colorado’s natural landscape.

Economic 
• 33% of Colorado counties report that agriculture plays a crucial economic role; losing family farms to residential development halts economic growth in rural locations and stops towns from creating wealth locally.

• Municipal budgets will be tightly squeezed. Large lot rural developments in Colorado represent $1.65 in infrastructure costs for every tax dollar they bring in; private agricultural land provides almost double the revenue than it costs to deliver their services.

• $550 million in revenue from the tourism industry will be threatened. Statistics from Gunnison County visitors indicate that 58% of tourists would limit their visits to the area if the farms and ranches were transformed into developments.

Environmental 
• Lost open space leads directly to a decline in water quality and an increase in pollution. New septic systems increase waste nutrient counts in surface and ground water, and pollutants are unable to filter naturally through topsoil as rainwater runs directly off paved surfaces into drains.

• Air quality will suffer following increased development. By 2020 drivers will be spending twice as much time in their cars as their homes get further from urban centers, and emission levels will elevate.

• Large lot development fragments habitats. Roads and other associated buildings cut through once open ranchland. Habitats are altered and isolated, and the ecosystem balance is disturbed.

Recommendations 
Colorado is at a crucial stage—as a state, we must take action to protect Colorado’s working landscapes, or else we risk losing much of the agricultural land that protects Colorado’s environmental well being, provides the state with a solid economic foundation, and sustains our rural communities.

Leaders from all stakeholder groups should unite to begin an open and productive discussion to identify a set of policy options that are politically and socially feasible for combating agricultural land loss. Ideas for discussion could include, but are not limited to: developing strategies that would make it easier for local farmers and ranchers to keep their land in production, studying the mechanics and feasibility of increasing conservation funding, and exploring options for managing growth. Working together, Coloradans can effectively mitigate the harms of agricultural land loss in a way that protects the interests of all involved.