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Colorado

Back in 2012, one of the major employers in Montrose, Colorado, a sawmill, was in receivership and on the brink of collapse. At the time, local media reported that the cost of logging timber had become prohibitively expensive, and the log yard was nearly empty.  

These days, logs are stacked high next to a humming mill. Production is up 20 percent from even just 2016.

Frank Morris / KCUR 89.3

The Colorado Rockies are packed with natural beauty, huge vistas, pretty flowers and adorable critters.

But when I backpacked the 160-mile Collegiate Loop on the Colorado Trail last month, I discovered a great little community of strangers out on the trail. Here are just a few of the notables I met on the trail.

Esther Honig / Harvest Public Media

Esperanza Yanez can spot a sick cow just by looking at it.

“The head hangs down and they don’t eat,” said Yanez, who immigrated from Mexico two decades ago and has been caring for cattle ever since.

While learning to communicate with animals takes years of patience, Yanez said the true language barrier exists between the dairy workers and the veterinarians who rarely speak Spanish. Medical terminology can be confusing, and to avoid embarrassment, Yanez said she and other workers may feign comprehension.

Christie Spencer

There’s a long-forbidden crop on the verge of legalization, one that’s versatile and could open up new markets for farmers: hemp.

“I believe, honestly, that [hemp] is the only thing that’s really gonna bring agriculture out of the rut that it’s been in for the last 30 years,” hemp farmer Ryan Loflin said.

He lives in Colorado, one of at least 35 states that can grow hemp mainly through research pilot programs. That was a provision championed by U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in the 2014 farm bill.

P.J. Sneed is a nurse at a hospital in Wichita, but only until the end of the June. That’s when he’ll quit to become a hemp farmer.

“I’ve not grown a stitch of hemp,” he said. “But I feel like I know how I could do it and have a plan to do it.”

He’ll need more than just enthusiasm to succeed as he trades the stresses of checking patients’ vital signs and administering medicine for the stresses of growing a new crop without experience or the benefits of crop insurance.

Esther Honig / Harvest Public Media

Thirty-eight calves, between two and four months old, moo and kick at the dirt floor in a steel barn in Brush, Colorado. One by one, a handler leads them from the pen to a narrow chute, where their legs are restrained and they’re lifted onto a hydraulic table. 

Esther Honig / Harvest Public Media

Colorado farmer Steve Kelly brushes aside a small mound of dry yellow dirt to reveal a sugar beet seed that’s no larger than a peppercorn. It seems insignificant, but the seed is different from what he planted more than 20 years ago.

“The quality of the beet wasn’t as good and yield and everything that way wasn’t as good either,” he said.  

Now all but 5 percent of sugar beet seeds in the U.S. are genetically modified, or GMO.

Esther Honig / Harvest Public Media

In the small city of Fort Morgan, Colorado, 33-year-old Verónica delicately stacks cans of food into her mini shopping cart, strolling the narrow aisles of the Rising Up food pantry to gather eggs, milk, apples and an extra-large box of cereal.

Esther Honig / Harvest Public Media

Cannabinoid Creations founder Scott Leshman pours samples of his signature soda flavor, Cartoon Cereal Crunch, at his booth for the annual NoCo Hemp Exposition in Loveland, Colorado. It’s an ode to the breakfast cereal, Cap'n Crunch CrunchBerries, with a twist: It contains cannabidiol, also known as CBD oil.  

Esther Honig / Harvest Public Media

Wearing a heavy smock and rubber boots, Amadedin Eganwa stands over a large conveyor belt that’s carrying unconscious lambs. He faces east, towards Mecca, gently lifts the animal’s head in the same direction and under his breath he quickly says a prayer — bismillahi allahu akbar, or “in God’s name” — before swiftly cutting the lamb’s throat.

Madelyn Beck / Harvest Public Media

Western Illinois might be close to the Mississippi and Illinois rivers, but it’s the driest part of the state this year.

“We really haven’t really had any measurable rain since the middle of October,” says Ken Schafer, who farms winter wheat, corn and soybeans in Jerseyville, north of St. Louis. “I dug some post-holes this winter, and it's just dust.”

Sam Zeff / KCUR 89.3

This is just not the kind of news Kansans want to hear, but: Four of the ten most isolated towns in the United States are in Kansas.

File: Grant Gerlock / Harvest Public Media

Between the time a cut of steak or pound of hamburger goes from cattle farm to grocery shelf, it more than likely passes through one of three companies: Tyson Foods, Cargill or JBS.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the top four beef processors hold 85 percent of the market share, controlling the beef market to the point that some farmers believe the companies’ clout unfairly influences livestock prices. 

Water is an in-demand commodity in Del Norte, Colorado.
Luke Runyon / Harvest Public Media

In the summer of 2002, water pumps in Colorado’s San Luis Valley stopped working.

The center pivot sprinklers that coax shoots from the dry soil and turn the valley into one of the state’s most productive agricultural regions strained so hard to pull water from an underground aquifer that they created sunken pits around them.

“This one right over here,” says potato farmer Doug Messick as he walks toward a sprinkler in the valley, near the town of Center. He's the farm manager at Spud Grower Farms. “I came up to it one day and I could’ve driven my pickup in that hole.”

In June, online retail giant Amazon announced its intent to buy Whole Foods Market for nearly $14 billion.
Marco Verch / Creative Commons

The online retail giant Amazon announced a deal in June that showed its latest ambition: to completely change how America gets its food.

The latest step toward that goal is a proposed merger with Whole Foods Market, worth nearly $14 billion. The deal recently passed a key hurdle after the U.S. Federal Trade Commission decided the sale  would not hamper competition or provide an unfair advantage.

New data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show a new dimension to the urban-rural divide: death rates related to cancer.

Cancer death rates are falling nationwide, but they remain higher in rural areas (180 deaths per 100,000 persons) than in cities (158 deaths per 100,000 persons), according to the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

The small town of Haxton on Colorado's eastern plains has seen a declining population.
Luke Runyon / Harvest Public Media

Brandon Biesemeier climbs up a small ladder into a John Deere sprayer, takes a seat in the enclosed cab, closes the door, and blocks out most of the machine’s loud engine hum. It is a familiar perch to the fourth-generation farmer on Colorado’s eastern plains.

He turns onto a country road, heading south to spray an herbicide on his cornfields, an early growing season task his genetically engineered crops demand if he is to unlock their value. In the cab, a computer screen shows a little pixelated tractor moving across digital fields, logging his work.

Luke Runyon / Harvest Public Media file photo

Farmers and ranchers, with their livelihoods intimately tied to weather and the environment, may not be able to depend on research conducted by the government to help them adapt to climate change if the Trump Administration follows through on campaign promises to shift federal resources away from studying the climate.

Former Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says the long delays in seating his replacement leaves rural America without a voice in the Trump administration.

Vilsack, a Democrat who served as USDA chief during both terms of the Obama Administration, cites President Donald Trump’s first budget proposal as an example of what happens without a Cabinet position dedicated to rural issues.

The headquarters of the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C.
U.S. Department of Agriculture / Flickr

Farm and rural advocacy groups say cuts to the U.S. Department of Agriculture in President Donald Trump’s proposed budget would harm rural communities, at a time when many of them need an infusion of cash.

In what’s being called a “skinny budget” because it sets an outline and contains scant details, Trump’s proposal calls for a 21 percent reduction in the USDA’s annual discretionary spending, and lays out rationales for why some programs are either eliminated or scaled back, calling some “duplicative,” or “underperforming.”

What is left of the home of O.T. Jackson, the founder of Dearfield, Colorado, sits on the town site in rural Weld County.
Luke Runyon / Harvest Public Media

Blink while driving on Highway 34 east of Greeley, Colorado, and you might miss the former Great Plains town of Dearfield.

Abandoned towns from the early 20th century are far from unique on this stretch of plains. Withered storefronts and collapsed false-front homes are common. Boom and bust economics and harsh weather made it tough for turn of the century settlers to succeed long-term.

Isra Mohamud, 18, is a member of Fort Morgan Colorado's small East African community.
Luke Runyon / Harvest Public Media

This story is part of the special series United And Divided, which explores the links and rifts between rural and urban America.

The bell signals the start of second period. A trio of young women take seats in English class, their attention quickly drifting outside the walls of the high school in Fort Morgan, Colorado, eager to talk about what they’re working toward.

“I want to become an FBI [agent],” says freshman Mariam Mohammed. “It’s my dream.”

A worker tends to the cows at a dairy farm outside Wellington, Colorado.
File: Luke Runyon / Harvest Public Media

After hundreds of arrests of undocumented immigrants by immigration police, the Trump administration’s increased focus on immigration enforcement has some of the country’s largest farm groups worried.

At this Natural Grocers store in Lakewood, Colorado, the non-dairy milk section is larger than the actual dairy milk section.
Luke Runyon / Harvest Public Media

A war is brewing over what you pour on your breakfast cereal.

Dairy farmers say the makers of plant-based milks – like almond milk, soy milk and a long list of other varieties – are stealing away their customers and deceiving consumers. And they’d like the federal government to back them up.

At its heart, the fight boils down to the definition and use of one simple word: milk.

Tens of thousands of black soldier fly larvae munch on juice pulp at Mad Agriculture's pilot facility in Boulder County, Colorado.
Luke Runyon / Harvest Public Media

Americans waste a staggering amount of food. Instead of letting it rot and wreck the environment, some entrepreneurs want to put it to work feeding insects, and see the potential to revolutionize how we feed some of the livestock that provide us our meat.

Ben and Leticia Ward have built their Colorado farm using decommissioned military gear and found materials.
Luke Runyon / Harvest Public Media

Ben and Leticia Ward’s farm in Fountain, Colorado, just outside Colorado Springs, doesn’t look like an army base. But it’s not hard to uncover whiffs of military influence at Little Roman Farm.

A stack of sturdy fiberglass bins next to a greenhouse seem benign, ready to be put to use as brooding bins for chickens or an aquaponics system to grow veggies and fish at the same time. The bins once housed Joint Direct Attack Munition, or part of a system that controls “smart bombs.”

Skinned, sliced, battered, deep-fried animal testicles served as Rocky Mountain Oysters at Bruce's Bar in Severance, Colorado.
Ann Marie Awad / for Harvest Public Media

A guy who covers agriculture in the West who’s never put a skinned, sliced, battered, deep-fried bull testicle into a cup of cocktail sauce and then into his mouth? I couldn’t let it stand.

They’re known by many names: lamb fries, bull fries, Montana tenders, huevos de toro, cowboy caviar. In my corner of Colorado, they’re Rocky Mountain oysters and I somehow coaxed myself into thinking I needed to try them to be more a part of the place I live, to be a true blue Coloradan.

The headwaters of the South Platte River emerge near Bailey, Colorado.
Luke Runyon / Harvest Public Media

Contaminated drinking water isn’t just a problem for Flint, Michigan. Many towns and cities across the Midwest and Great Plains face pollution seeping into their water supplies. A big part of the problem: farming and ranching.

Kathey Lee, owner of jam company Modern Gingham, fills jars at her shared kitchen in Denver.
Luke Runyon / Harvest Public Media

The hardest part of starting a new food business should be in perfecting the secret recipe. For many entrepreneurial cooks though, the tough times come when searching for a space to legally make and sell their food.

Commercial kitchen space, with stainless steel counters, industrial appliances meeting food safety regulations and appropriately-sized sinks, can be hard to come by and expensive to build. One tech startup is trying to fix that, using the same sharing economy concepts as travel titans Uber and Airbnb.

Auctioneer Spanky Assiter calls bids for land and water rights at a real estate auction in Loveland, Colorado.
Luke Runyon / Harvest Public Media

Few things are more valuable to a farmer in the arid West than irrigation water. Without it, the land turns back into its natural state: dry, dusty plains. If a fast-growing city is your neighbor, then your water holds even more value.

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