by Greeley Tribune reporter Bill Jackson
The history of agriculture in Weld County can be traced back to one source: Water.
In the early days of the county, herds of cattle dominated the landscape,but that landscape began to change with the construction of the No. 3 ditch off the Poudre River. It was the first ditch in the United States built specifically to grow food.
By the late 1890s and early 1900s, agriculture in the arid area of Weld began to blossom as water was brought to fields off the main rivers in the area (the St. Vrain, Big and Little Thompson, Poudre, Boulder Creek and others) all that fed the South Platte River. The majority of that water came from snowmelt and it wasn’t long before farmers in the area realized the need to build water storage facilities as a supply of irrigation water during the later days of the growing season. And at about the same time, they realized the higher in the mountains those storage facilities could be built, the better.
While early settlers of the Union Colony had gardens they irrigated, the first major irrigated crops to come into the region were potatoes and sugar beets. Sugar beets (which has been said bought and paid for more farms in northern Colorado than any other crop) were brought to the area by Germans from Russia who immigrated to the area in the late 1800s, early 1900s. The crop became quickly established and sugar processing plants popped up all over the area and at one time there were no fewer than 18 stretching from Brighton and Fort Lupton, Longmont to Greeley, Loveland, Eaton, Windsor, Fort Collins, Johnstown, Fort Morgan, Brush, Sterling, and Ovid, near Julesburg in the northeast corner of the state.
Many of Weld County’s Spanish surnamed residents can trace relatives back to the 1920s when they came to work the sugar beets and get them through the growing season and to the processing plants.
Weld became the state leader in sugar beet production and sugar beet acreage expanded into several thousand acres category. By the 1940s, upwards of 150,000 acres of sugar beets would be harvested in Weld alone, according to acreage reports from each of the county’s processing factories at the time. As livestock feeding and dairy operations starting moving into the region, corn became the dominant crop and acreage declined in other crops. A potato blight in the 1940s had much to do with the decline of that crop, although it’s importance was well documented in James Michener’s “Centennial.”
In 1969, the production of sugar beets hit it peak in northern Colorado. It was also one of the worst years in history for the crop. Major winter storms moved into the area in early October of that year at about the time the sugar beet harvest was just getting started. The second of those storms left 16 inches of snow in Greeley. But it got worse from there. Plunging temperatures froze several thousand acres of beets in the ground and the Great Western Sugar Co. was forced to shut down factories when it became unable to process frozen beets.
Onions, dry beans, corn and other irrigated crops suffered much the same fate that fall.
But it was about that same time that Weld County began its assent into the top 10 agricultural counties in the nation in terms of receipts for agricultural products. Since then, it has ranked as high as second and has never been out of the top 10. In the latest census, it was ranked 8th and was the only county outside of California ranked in the top 10 in the nation.
The Great Western Sugar Co. was bought out of bankruptcy by Tate & Lyle, based in London, England, in the late 1980s. The name was changed to the Western Sugar Co., and that became the Western Sugar Cooperative, when beet farmers in Colorado, Nebraska, Wyoming and Montana bought the company from Tate & Lyle in 2002. While the beet acreage has declined significantly, Weld continues to produce about 60 percent of those grown in Colorado.
According to that 2007 Census of Agriculture, Weld County agriculture leads the state in 16 of the 27 categories it lists in terms of receipts for agricultural products. In addition, it is ranked No. 1 in the nation in sheep, goats and their products, No. 1 in the number of sheep and lambs, No. 2 in cattle and calves, and No. 3 in the value of livestock, poultry and their products.
Weld is the home of pioneers in the area of cattle and lamb feeding. The most successful of those was started by Warren Monfort in the Depression when he began feeding a few head of cattle on the family farm north of Greeley. That was to lead to what became Monfort of Colorado, with three feedlots in Colorado that had a one time capacity of nearly 300,000 head of feeder cattle; the development, with the help of Platteville native John Matsushima, a world renown animal scientist at Colorado State University, of feeding cattle flaked corn which aided in the digestibility of corn for cattle; and the vision of Kenny Monfort, who developed the practice of shipping beef products in uniform boxes instead of carcasses from Greeley’s beef packing plant.
That family company is now a part of the largest beef feeding and processing company in the world, JBS S.A., and JBS USA continues to have its headquarters in Greeley.
Weld is also home to the only carrot growing and processing company in the state. Hungenberg Produce and the Hungenberg family have been farming in Weld for five generations and process cabbage as well as carrots from a facility just north of Greeley.
That is one of several vegetable and produce companies in the county that grow and/or process a variety of produce. Those include onions (northern Colorado is the fourth or fifth largest storage onion producing areas in the United States) sweet corn, broccoli, cabbage, and hundreds of other vegetables including those coming from organic operations that have gained in popularity in the past 15-20 years.
Weld’s dairies lead the state in the production of milk. Weld produces 57 percent of the milk in Colorado and has become the 17th largest dairy county in the U.S. in cow numbers (almost 70,000. Of the 130 dairies in Colorado, 74 of them call Weld County home). That industry is expected to expand in the coming years with the addition of Leprino Food’s second largest cheese plant in Greeley. That plant is on the same land that housed a sugar processing factory for more than 100 years and will help Colorado become the largest producer of mozzarella cheese in the world once in full operation.
The top three crops now grown in Weld are corn, hay and wheat. But it continues to be the livestock industry that is the economic driver of agriculture. Of the annual $1.54 billion in market value of agriculture that ranked Weld 8th in the nation, $1.26 billion of that came from livestock. But livestock, like crops, need water. And as water helped develop a strong agricultural industry in Weld County, it also holds the key to the future of the industry.