Eastern Plains

Esther Honig

Each spring, ranchers across the Eastern Plains look at their land and ask a very important question: How much green can they expect this season?

In this case, "green" refers not to money, but to grass. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently launched a new tool to help cattlemen predict just how much they can look forward to.

Luke Runyon / KUNC and 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.

Courtesy Rocky Ford Growers Association

Farmers across the Great Plains are in their fields trying to gauge the damage from this weekend’s snowstorm. So far, the results are mixed.

The storm’s timing made it particularly destructive for wheat growers across the Great Plains. But it wasn’t the cold temperatures that caused the most damage: it was weight. The snow was so heavy it snapped wheat stalks in half. It’s still unclear exactly how many wheat acres were lost.

Ron Knight / Flickr

Around the end of April, a small, brown and white bird arrives on Colorado's eastern plains. The mountain plover may not seem like much to some, but it draws dozens of bird watching enthusiasts to the tiny community of Karval -- midway between Limon and La Junta -- for the annual Mountain Plover Festival.

For the festival, now in its 11th year, many of Karval’s farmers and ranchers do something rather unusual – they open up their land and their homes to host festival attendees.

Luke Runyon / KUNC and 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.

Few ghost towns, however, have all the elements that make Dearfield’s story so compelling today: larger than life characters, struggles to live off the land, tales of racial integration at the height of the Jim Crow era.

Join me, if you will, on a brief trip down memory lane — back to Wednesday, when authorities told residents of a small Colorado town that their tap water had been laced with THC. At the time, the Lincoln County Sheriff's Office said that multiple tests of a local well had turned up "presumptive positive" for the compound, best known as the mind-altering component in marijuana.

Lance Cheung / U.S. Department Of Agriculture

At Ollin Farms in Longmont, Mark Guttridge is transitioning from spring crops to vegetables that will ripen in late summer and early fall. Having water later in the summer is crucial for Guttridge, but he knows from experience that that's not guaranteed.

"In 2012, we were in a drought year and it got hot really early just like it did this year in June," he said.

Guttridge uses a combination of ditch and municipal sources to irrigate his 10 acres. The municipal tap is a partial safety net. The part of the farm that relies on water being available in the ditch... that's more vulnerable. Climate change means water from spring runoff is coming earlier, creating new challenges for farmers.

Luke Runyon / KUNC, Harvest Public Media

Massive bison herds used to be a staple of the Great Plains. That is until we almost hunted them out of existence.

Now, with a new designation as the United States’ national mammal, bison ranchers argue that to conserve the species we have to eat them.

It’s an idea called “market-based conservation,” and it contends that humans are no good at saving species out of the goodness of our hearts, or motivated by some driving force of environmental justice. Instead, we create demand for an animal and then work hard to keep its population robust so we can gawk at it through binoculars, take pictures of it, or in the case of the American bison, eat it.

Bente Birkeland / RMCR

American Indian mascots draw controversy. They're most visible as the logos of sports teams… and some in Colorado call some of the symbols racist. Efforts at the state Legislature to try and ban the use or restrict the mascots at schools have failed. That hasn't stopped some schools from working with tribes to find the middle ground.

Strasburg, Colorado, is where the last spike was hammered in the nation's coast-to-coast railroad in 1870. This tiny town about an hour east of Denver is also home to the Indians, Strasburg High School's sports teams.

Peter Pearsall / U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Every April, the Mountain Plover arrives on Colorado’s eastern plains. Despite its unassuming size and appearance, it draws plenty of bird watching enthusiasts to the tiny community of Karval for the annual Mountain Plover festival.

"Karval has a population of, I think, about 30 -- there’s not much out there," said Betty Snow, a bird watcher who’s attending the festival for her third time. "It’s interesting to go and connect with the people and the farmers, and listen to what they do, and why they have gone to lengths to conserve this bird."

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