Wayne Counts, a Moffat County wheat farmer, said there are a handful of farmers in the county left willing to try to make a living in farming.
“There is definitely a reason there are only a few of us left,” he said.
Counts said the economics of farming and ranching in the area are often difficult.
But, despite the struggles he and many other farmers and ranchers may go through in a year, he loves the profession he grew up with, he said.
“We don’t need to get rich, we just want to get by,” Counts said.
Getting by could be somewhat easier this year, considering the average to slightly above average harvest of wheat and hay in the area, he said.
“Some parts of the county are above average and some parts are below average, so it averages out,” he said.
But, Counts is most pleased by the respectable wheat prices caused by a poor Russian harvest stemming from severe drought.
“It was pretty sad this spring,” he said referring to wheat prices. “They were just really low, like below $2 here. Everybody was going to try to figure out different ways to make a living. It changes quick.”
Scott Ford, a regional economist based in Steamboat Springs, said the agriculture industry in Moffat County is “very different” today than it was 40 years ago.
The percentage of total personal income received in the county from agriculture-related activity — both crops and livestock — has decreased in Moffat and Routt counties, Ford said.
“Its actual percentage of the role it plays in the economy is smaller,” he said. “Some of it is due to some of the challenges that go on in agriculture. The actual expenses to produce have gone up, so the margins are smaller in agriculture than they may have been in the past.”
Agriculture accounted for about 10 percent of the Moffat County’s total income in the early 1970s, Ford said. In 2008, the latest figures available, agriculture accounted for about 3.2 percent of the county’s personal income.
In 2008, agriculture revenue from production totaled about $45.5 million. That figure has steadily risen in the county since 2000, when production from revenue, adjusted for inflation, was $30. 5 million.
Ford said the agriculture industry in the area has maintained humble, but steady levels of production.
Ford said the growth of other economic sectors in the area accounts for the decrease of agriculture in the local economy.
“The rest of the economy in both areas got bigger,” he said. “Ag didn’t get bigger, it kind of stayed about the same. It maybe grew a little bit, but you know, it is what it is.”
Historically in Moffat County, Ford said, livestock accounts for about 85 percent of agriculture revenue. Crops, mainly hay and small grains like wheat, account for about 15 percent, Ford said.
In 2008, 41,800 acres of hay were harvested in the county, which resulted in 69,000 tons of hay produced. Hay production reached a recent high of 73,500 tons in 2004, but began to drop off in the following years.
Wheat production followed the same trends by reaching a high of 330,000 bushels in 2004. Production, however, dropped to 184,000 bushels by 2008.
Estimates indicate cattle and sheep numbers also fell slightly in recent years, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
In 2001, about 39,000 cattle were estimated to be in Moffat County. Cattle estimates fell to an estimated 26,500 in 2009.
The USDA estimated there are about 25,000 head of cattle in Moffat County this year. Estimated sheep numbers in the county have also declined.
The USDA estimated there were 86,500 sheep in the county in 2002, a number that dropped to 60,500 by 2007.
Ford said the recent economic downturn has had a heavy impact on the local agriculture industry.
“You are going to see a little bit less demand for some of the products that we produce,” Ford said.
The agriculture industry, which is mainly driven by commodity pricing, has been hit in the same way many other industries have, Ford said. Many consumers may have adjusted their spending habits, thus impacting agriculture product prices.
The recent economic downturn, Ford said, would most likely decrease the average production revenue per farm or ranch in the county.
Revenue per farm or ranch has trended downward in the county since the 1970s. Recently, however, that number had been rising from the recent low of $55,341 in 2001, to $105,468 in 2008.
But, Ford said the local agriculture industry would recover from the economic downturn on the shoulders of consumer spending habits, much like other industries.
“When the consumer begins to spend again and feels confident ... we’ll start buying premium cuts of beef,” he said. “And when you are buying premium cuts of beef, the folks that are processing the cattle get more for that cow.”
But, despite the economy, agriculture will continue to play an important role in Moffat County, Ford said.
“The challenge is not to focus on the dollars and cents and the percentages always with agriculture, because not everything that really counts can be measured in those,” he said. “Agriculture holds a lifestyle and cultural component for us, and it will for a very long time.”