Luxury ranch developments are cropping up across Colorado. Are they preserving our open spaces and cowboy culture—or destroying them?
Summer sunshine blazes out of a cloudless Colorado sky, beating down on Chad Bedell's black cowboy hat. His forked wrinkles converge into a squint, which he aims at the herd of glossy cattle milling about him. He's looking for the calf he'd seen limping yesterday, and as he steers his mottled paint horse through the pasture, he glances at the numbered tags dangling from the cattle's ears.
Aside from his well-worn work boots and forthright gaze, Chad Bedell has lifelong cowboy credentials: He worked cattle and sheep on his family's land in the Elk River Valley before going onto the professional rodeo circuit and winning the 1996 World Championship in steer wrestling. Now, at 43, he's too old for the rodeo tour and, unfortunately, he has no land to ranch of his own; his family sold its failing 90-year-old homestead 13 years ago. Today, Bedell works as the ranch manager at a Steamboat Springs farm named Marabou.
Once Bedell's located his calf, he rides his horse over a ridge and drops into the valley. The Elk River shines like a silver ribbon curling through the grassland, and beside its glimmer a tiny tractor cuts tidy rows of grass to make hay. "That'd be me in that tractor, except one of the owners asked if he could do it instead," explains Bedell.
Driving the tractor is John Dorton, the CEO of MasterCraft Boat Co. Dorton has bought one of the 62 plots of land at Marabou, which is no regular working ranch: It's a 1,717-acre luxury development where cash-drenched gentry line up to get dusty doing chores alongside Bedell and his ranch hands. Owners pay millions for a piece of property and the right to play cowboy by moving cattle, driving tractors, and planting crops.
Later, after his hay is baled and the horses are stabled, Dorton confides that cutting hay helps him escape the stress of keeping his shareholders happy. Though he resides in Knoxville, Tennessee, he's spent four weeks at Marabou during his first year of ownership. As a kid, Dorton worked on his grandparents' Virginia farm, and before buying land at Marabou, he'd toyed with the idea of owning his own ranch out West. "I just love land, and I feel a deeper connection to it when I get my hands dirty," Dorton says. "But I don't have the time to devote myself fully to an agricultural operation." Marabou lets him indulge his ranch cravings without committing himself whole-hog. "In a way," he says, "it's sort of like fantasy ranching."
Shared ranch communities, as they're known, offer a place for people to buy property and participate in agricultural operations as their interest dictates. States such as Idaho and Montana claim a handful of these ranches, but there's a high concentration of them in Colorado. Generally, they're high-dollar affairs: Marabou "homesteads" cost as much as $6 million, and elsewhere, at 2,953-acre Maytag Mountain Ranch, southwest of Pueblo, and 2,000-acre Sandstone American Ranch, near Larkspur, the bidding starts around $800,000. That's land only—owners need to build their own homes. Marabou's first residence, now under construction, will be 4,800 square feet of Western luxury.
The outlay at Marabou gets buyers gorgeous views, luxurious amenities—such as stables, gyms, community centers, spa facilities, and groomed fisheries—and, most of all, a rural lifestyle. Maytag and Sandstone both include a community garden and a chicken coop where owners can collect their own farm-fresh food. Sandstone participates in the local 4-H program so owners' kids can have the experience of caring for their own steers and showing them at the county fairgrounds. And at Maytag and Marabou, each homestead owner receives a share of the ranch's grass-fed beef.
Homestead sales started brisk, but slowed in 2008 due to the recession; since '06, Marabou has sold 39 of it 62 sites. Overall, the number of shared ranch developments is on the rise, a trend that Jeff Davis, a managing partner with M3 Companies, Sandstone's developer, expects to continue as others get into the game. "It appeals to people who always dreamed of having a ranch," says Davis. "You're living the ranch experience, enjoying your cattle, your horses, but without physically doing the work. We do all the heavy lifting."
Some owners just like the pastoral views and find that their version of a "home in the country" affords a peace and relaxation that's all too elusive at their primary residences in Denver, Chicago, or Atlanta. But for many, shared ranches represent a chance to return to a rural lifestyle they sampled as kids: Some helped their neighbors put up hay years ago; others spent their summers mending fences on their grandparents' farms. They want to reconnect with those memories, with the wholesome, character-building experiences they found on farms somewhere in their past—and to have their kids know them, too.
Colorado's ranches are deeply nostalgic places, but as agricultural land shrinks across the state, the wealthy may be the only ones able to afford to "ranch." A 2006 study by Environment Colorado reported that the state lost 1.26 million acres of agricultural land since 1997, and Colorado continues to lose the equivalent of about five family farms per week. A complex web of factors, including rising land values and estate taxes, squeeze family farms.
That's one trend that Chris West, executive director of the Colorado Cattlemen's Agricultural Land Trust, is trying to reverse. West works with family farms and ranches to help them remain working agricultural operations, often through conservation easements that provide tax incentives to landowners who forfeit their development rights. He maintains that luxury shared ranches aren't putting family farms out of business. And as developments go, they're relatively farm-friendly: Low-density developments like Maytag, Sandstone, and Marabou actually preserve large tracts of open space and keep agricultural lands in production—an approach West prefers over 35-acre "ranchette" developments that eat up prime agricultural land.
But the luxury model doesn't actually preserve Colorado's working ranches. "It's a completely different economic structure," West explains. For one, ranch developments aren't scratching out a livelihood from the land: Homeowners' fees subsidize the ranching. And he suspects that most emphasize aesthetics over production, using agriculture as so much window dressing. "My concern is that ranches have become merely a vehicle to sell real estate lots, the way golf courses have," he says.
Not everyone agrees. Montana Canterbury, the cattle and ecology manager at Maytag Mountain Ranch, spends his days working on pasture rotation, weed management, animal husbandry, and raising 300 grass-fed, certified-organic cattle. Canterbury grew up ranching in Hillside, and now manages the property that Russ Maytag worked for 30 years before he initiated the development. "There's nothing fake about this ranch," Canterbury says. "I wouldn't be here if it wasn't a real ranch." Left unsaid is the Maytag's good fortune of 27 wealthy benefactors.
Neighboring ranchers also accept luxury ranching as a far cry better than another golf course or condos. "They keep their fences up, and they're very good about managing water," admits Marsha Daughenbaugh, who, in addition to serving as executive director of the Community Agriculture Alliance in Steamboat Springs, has been ranching all her life on the Rocking C Bar Ranch, which sits within sight of Marabou. Still, Daughenbaugh says it's hard to watch the land torn up to build big roads and expensive houses that look out of place on ranches, even if Marabou tries to mitigate the impact with planning.
Furthermore, as luxury developments raise land values, they're putting a tight squeeze on family farms—at least so long as the federal estate tax remains in place. When the ranch owner dies, the heirs must pony up taxes on the land's worth. So while ranching operations might gross $600 per acre annually from grazing and hay, the land is assessed according to neighboring tracts selling for $30,000 per acre. "The IRS doesn't care if the land is used for condos or cows. They assess against the highest adjacent value," says Daughenbaugh. When her 92-year-old dad dies, Daughenbaugh will likely have to sell off part of her property to cover the estate taxes. Faced with the same situation, many families are forced to sell out entirely—making estate taxes possibly the single biggest reason explaining the disappearance of family ranches.
As working ranchers sell out and vacation homeowners move in, the social fabric takes on a new texture. "They're changing our culture and heritage," Daughenbaugh says. "The people moving in are in love with the ranch lifestyle, but they know nothing about ranching, and they don't understand us." She credits Jeff Temple, Marabou's developer and a descendent of area ranchers, for supporting regional agriculture as best he can, but these days she grumbles, "It seems like everybody wants to be a cowboy."
Wearing Wranglers and Western shirts, a band plucks out a country tune for the Marabou owners who've gathered for a Fourth of July celebration. The dance floor sits on a river bend, and the sound of rushing water babbles beneath the twanging guitars. But few have begun to boogie; everyone's still gathered around the swimming pool. Kids bob everywhere, splashing their water wings in the beach-style entrance and paddling after balls.
Just beyond the lounge chairs, where parents rest their pedicured feet, baled hay gleams golden in the late-afternoon sun. Those pastoral views might remind some loungers of the farms their parents worked, or their grandparents. They know that their land-hardened ancestors were forged in hotter fires than they, but they sense that the strongest parts of themselves were tempered during the hours they stacked bales in a 150-degree hayloft. They want their kids to be strengthened by the same flames—and so does Chad Bedell.
A few days earlier, Bedell sat in the shade munching a sandwich. He thought of his son, a toddler who's still too young to offer much help around the ranch. But Bedell's already started to teach him about moving goats and cleaning the stables—the broader principles of land stewardship that Bedell didn't believe would last. He knows that at a ranch like Marabou, his work represents equal parts romance and reality. But he'll take it.
Kelly Bastone is a contributing writer for 5280. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.