November 2005

Look to agriculture to revive county’s health

By Galen Larson

Montezuma County and Cortez are in ill health. I recently returned from a 20-day, 2,800-mile tour of the back roads and small towns in Utah, Idaho, Oregon, Washington, and northern California. Everywhere I went, I saw examples of viable economic development through use of agriculture and existing resources.

The locally owned restaurants were very good to superb. Local produce and meat on the menu — vegetables, herbs, chicken, seafood, and beef grown locally and highly advertised as such.

On the much-touted “Lonesomest Road in the West,” Highway 50 through northern Nevada, tourist stops, restaurants, and points of interest are popping up like mushrooms. One place way out there caught my eye: It had large solar panels by a dilapidated building with a sign that read “Breakfast All Day — Homemade Biscuits.” One has to check that out. The food was great — homemade pie with a flaky crust. We got out to walk the dog and I spotted two young men nearby. I asked them what was going on. They said they’d purchased 5 acres, drilled a 300-foot well, and put in 20 trailer hook-ups with a septic system. The panels provide more electricity than they can use at this time, so they are selling it back to the electric company. They also organized a gathering of horsemen and have a mock Pony Express ride every summer where competitors ride 50 miles for prizes. The event brings in about 500 horsemen and spectators for three weeks.

Another small town we encountered has people who specialize in raising pigs, not on large hog farms but on small individual farms with 40 to 100 pigs, free-range and fed a special diet. The meat is advertised as tasty, tender, slow-smoked and cured.

This is not an obtrusive industry. I didn’t see or smell the farms, although they were well-advertised. The meat is pricey, advertised in upscale magazines and sold in local shops. The head cheese was the best I’ve ever eaten outside of my mother’s from our own farm. I wasn’t in the mood for a $100 ham, but it was tempting when they gave me a taste. They didn’t need my business anyway, as they export as much product as they raise. Keeping the supply small and the demand high, they don’t need to get large to survive.

That, my friends, is vision — something sorely lacking in Montezuma County. We here seem to have a stock answer to anyone with new ideas: “It won’t work.” Narrow-mindedness, bull-headed attitudes and power plays have gotten us in this downward spiral.

We traveled through Leavenworth, Wash., a small community in the center of the state. It had fallen on hard times and was losing its business and tax structure. The city, county, and business interests got together and decided to have the town replicate a Bavarian village, with gingerbread decor on houses and stores. They were successful in bringing the town back to a lively and viable entity. That’s vision.

With our history, amenities, and location, something similar could be done here. “Genuine to the core,” Cortez’s motto, is nice-sounding, but what, may I ask, is the core? Webster defines “core” as the heart or inner part of fruit (usually thrown away), or to take out (well, we fairly well have done that with Wal-Mart). It seems kind of self-defeating to me.

We cannot continue to throw away what we have here and survive. (Of course, maybe we could become a ghost town and hope to be discovered, but I think it would be better to trade on our present agricultural heritage.) Agriculture can provide a multitude of good-paying jobs. Twenty-five years ago, our little town of Cortez had three farm-implement businesses. Apples, peaches and cherries were shipped to many states. “Grown in the shadow of Mesa Verde” was the logo. But we have let that vibrant economy slip away.

The health of any city depends on its looks: businesses, parks, great restaurants and attractive gateways. Not pawn shops, quick-loan companies and buyers of foreclosures, For Rent and Closed signs on empty businesses. I have never understood the animosity between the three towns in Montezuma County. Instead of working together, they’re at each other’s throats. In any game there may be rivalry, but it is teamwork that brings victory.

On my travels I came upon a small town that based its economy on one flower, lavender, and from that base other enterprises flourished — candles, soap, perfume, post cards, tours. Not only are they surviving, they enjoy the perfume of lavender in the air.

We here instead depend on hope. We hope we have a good crop of beans. We hope to have a good hay crop using artificial fertilizers, destroying the soil. We hope the tourists come and are in despair when they don’t because of wildfires or hantavirus. But there are 12 months in the year and with our climate we should be able to utilize every one of them.

One might think Tillamook, Ore., home of the famous cheese, would house a big intrusive factory. Not so — it is tastefully done, with 200 or more employees and an interesting tour. The wine country and small wineries have created an interstate commerce involving the purchasing and transporting of grapes from different parts of the state. Many communities along the coast have their economy based on myrtlewood carving, tables, lamps, figurines.

Here in our area, we have an exceptional wood to work with — Utah juniper, commonly called cedar. I don’t advocate cutting our forests down, but as with the myrtle, use just the down and dead trees.

The coasts of Washington, Oregon and California have a variety of fish, but no longer a never-ending supply, due to the pollution of two-thirds of our planet — the oceans. Could we raise fish in Montezuma County? It might be possible, if our irrigation canals weren’t polluted with artificial fertilizers and pesticides

We saw markets that sold local milk for $1.50 a gallon, with real cream on top. There were flower bulbs and herbs for sale, produced in large, family- owned greenhouses. It was a great trip, enjoyable and educational. Then we returned to Montezuma County, which reminds me of a large, healthy man who has gone through many feasts and famines and, through no fault of his own, has contracted a dangerous virus. He is being attended by a group of self-serving, inept interns who each have their own diagnosis and are too stubborn to work together to bring him back to health.

We are willing to accept what seems to be the only road to economic salvation — residential growth, which is like an amputation of our beautiful farmlands and our water. If we don’t wise up and use agriculture as our base economy, we will become a bedroom community for Durango.

The cure for our economic woes should be home-grown nourishment, not artificial injections from outside.

Galen Larson is a landowner in Montezuma County.