I've been herding cattle amidst trophy homes in the nation's fastest growing county. Our family leases grass on the south edge of Denver, and we're helping to keep urban sprawl from claiming one more patch of rural America.
Nationwide, urban areas are sprouting extreme suburbs -- exurbs -- that leapfrog across the landscape at an unprecedented rate. According to the Department of Agriculture, the United States loses over a million acres of rural land each year.
As I drive through Denver on my way to check the cattle, I see this statistic in real life. Despite 10 lanes of traffic, it takes an hour to reach a narrow highway winding through what was only recently a ranching community. Unpainted barns sag, unused, in the shadow of steel horse arenas. Oversized new homes, dubbed "starter castles" by the locals, sit perched on hilltops. Shaggy hay meadows that once fed hundreds of cattle now support a few horses.
At the ranch where our cattle graze, the land opens up a bit. The Wiens family have worked to keep their piece of rural America intact. They've clustered their barns and homes in the bottom of the draw, instead of perching them on hilltops like the valley's newcomers.
Their pastures are green and tightly fenced, in contrast to the yellow, stagnant grass on neighboring ranchettes. Their steep hay fields are flooded with irrigation water from ditches laid out 100 years ago, and produce bales by the thousands. But all around them, the foothills sprout homes like weeds.
There's a saying among ranchers who struggle to make ends meet in the midst of beautiful spaces: You can't eat the scenery. Yet this summer our cattle gorged themselves on the backdrop of prime real estate, gaining 80,000 pounds on the hoof. That's two more semi-trailers than we hauled into the valley last April, enough roast beef dinners to feed a subdivision for two weeks. But cattle here are quickly being crowded off the range.
One midsummer evening I rode my horse over a ridge on the Wiens Ranch, pushing a small bunch of heifers to the corral. The sun's heat had slipped behind the hogback foothills as we waded through stirrup-high grass. Thunderheads rolled off the mountains, their bellies splashed pink and orange. The cattle slowed to nibble at wheatgrass.
Even my horse seemed entranced by the silent Rockies towering on the horizon.
It was a moment as pure and unfallen as any I can remember. But even then, in the background I heard cars whining up private lanes as commuters returned home from work. Only a few minutes of daylight remained for them to enjoy the rural solitude of their country estates.
Those new neighbors were lured here for the very sort of moment I enjoyed, a glimpse of the sunset at the end of a harried commute.
They paid dearly for their land, and continue paying the steep price of long commutes in four-wheel-drive vehicles. By displacing agriculture for their private enjoyment, they've turned the view into a commodity. Barbed wire may keep cattle in, but it can't keep developers out.
In the future, this land will produce more trophy home sites and fewer choice beefsteaks.
Intact farms and ranches produce a host of social benefits that make the nation livable. But as the countryside fragments into smaller parcels, it no longer produces food, fiber and the open spaces that add charm to rural America. Any midlevel corporate executive can outbid ranchers for the rights to a secluded hillside pasture, even though his seclusion is subsidized by the few ranches that remain.
America is filled with spectacular views, often threatened by people who will never be satisfied until they own one. But the view isn't going anywhere. Those who care to climb these grassy hillsides can discover it for themselves, at no cost. It's only those determined to buy it -- to tame the landscape within a picture window -- who spoil it for everyone.
Not long ago, yet another farmer left my eastern Colorado community. Over three generations his family had accumulated a patchwork of fields that stretched for several miles. After his children moved away he put the land up for sale.
As the auctioneer tapped a gavel to open the bidding, one local farmer opened a laptop computer on top of an oil drum and tinkered with a spreadsheet. He had done his homework, analyzing each field's slope, soil type and history. He only bid while the prices fit his projections. When the auction closed, he clicked a button and annoyed his neighbors by boasting he'd bought 44 percent of the acres offered.
This farmer represents a trend that continues to cull creative young people from agriculture. The most business-minded, established farmers buy out their retiring neighbors, cut out opportunities for new blood, and so shrink and gray their own rural communities.
At the same time that rural America loses some of its most talented youth, it has also lost much of the public's trust. Americans don't fear famine, for they imagine – though incorrectly – that the food supply is endless. They fear that food is no longer safe to eat. They worry about pesticides or genetically modified crops, or other unknowns that might contaminate what they eat.
There is a connection between this erosion of trust and the loss of youth. Young people leave rural communities as farming's scale grows too large and mechanized to include them. This scale depends on ever-increasing technology, some of it labor-saving in the old-fashioned sense, but some of it in forms that consumers distrust, such as genetic engineering. Farming may be more efficient than ever, but it has lost much of its humanity.
Farms could use more poets, and fewer MBAs. When young farmers return home with college degrees, they're more often schooled in business than in the arts. The most creative kids are the least inclined to farm. They'd rather leave the field work to siblings fonder of machinery or numbers. Then they take jobs in the city, where creativity is more marketable than in the commodity business.
This no-nonsense approach has weeded the most creative young people from an entire rural generation. Without them, farming slips into a pattern of cold, calculated efficiency. The creative are our natural storytellers, and agriculture needs to tell its creation story.
Agriculture is creativity at its most raw. Newborn calves squirm on clean meadows as mama cows lick them to their feet. Milk streams white and frothy out of pink udders. Wheat stalks bend their ripe heads toward the soil. Nothing else – not medicine, nor any other technical field – can generate new life. Only sun, soil, air and water can do that.
But a growing number of farmers, so preoccupied with inputs and outputs and spreadsheets, no longer tell these stories, or even know how.
So it's no wonder that consumers have lost touch with their food's creation. They've come to imagine farms as factories where food rolls from assembly lines. While faceless industrial markets certainly give that impression, people need to know that their meal was grown in clean soil, beneath skies clearer than those of any city.
But until we start encouraging rural America's most creative young minds to return to the land, the human side of agriculture will continue to lie buried beneath heaps of commodities.