Ranchers of color, now and in the past, make marks in Colorado

Emma Brown, a 23-year-old rancher, tromped through mud at Windy Creek Ranch in Longmont to oversee her five new Corriente cattle, with her mutt Ellie at her heels.

Bustling between chores around the property, Brown made a stop in the horse stalls to calm a thoroughbred before slathering ointment on its nose.

Then, she’s off again, accompanying a ranch hand to turn their other horses out to pasture. Brown knows horses well – she started learning how to ride at 4 years old, eventually advancing to show jumping and other events.

Just up the road, her family owns a 40-acre property where her parents ran a horse boarding facility throughout her adolescence, and she bought her own horse as a teenager. But last month, she took on a new business endeavor: cattle, with the goal of doing cattle drives and eventually selling beef.

“We do have the market for it,” she says. Brown called it “a big investment, but we’re really excited.”

When not doing chores, Brown keeps busy as the owner of EB Outdoors, the business she founded in 2021 to teach riding lessons and lead trail rides.

As she works, her arms flex, drawing attention to tattoos that honor her Tongan heritage: hammerhead shark symbols to represent diversity, fish scales for life and its creatures and more. Brown stands out as one of a handful of Polynesians in Colorado’s agriculture industry, which has traditionally been dominated by white farmers and ranchers. Only 70 Native Hawaiians or Pacific Islanders work on farms statewide as agriculture producers.

“I think it would be a lot worse if I hadn’t grown up in it,” Brown says.

Hollywood’s classic depiction of the Wild West featured white frontiersmen and cowboys. But John Wayne and Gary Cooper, she is not.

Brown has watched the industry gradually grow more diverse on social media. Offline, her staff of four – all younger than 26 years old – serves as a real-time example of its evolution.

“There’s not a lot of people who are my age doing this,” she says. “It feels like uncharted territory.”

In many ways, it is, because Colorado agriculture is still dominated by white men. But women and people of color continue to build on what is a fairly rich – though sometimes obscure – history of farming, ranching and homesteading in the state.

Colorado is home to almost 39,000 farms, with more than 69,000 agriculture producers working on them – and around 67,400 identifying as white, the latest U.S. Census of Agriculture reports. A producer is defined as “a person who is involved in making decisions for the farm operation,” such as an owner, manager or sharecropper, said National Agricultural Statistics Service spokesperson Terry Matlock.

The statistics for people of color on the job are much smaller, with about 3,800 Latino producers, almost 500 Native American producers, almost 400 Asian producers and close to 100 Black producers.

The numbers don’t add up evenly because the total amount of white producers includes some of the data about Latinos, depending on how producers reported race. The census does not indicate how many of these farms hire migrant workers. Notably, the demographic data was collected for only up to four producers per farm, Matlock said.

The racial disparity in the agricultural labor pool falls in line with the overarching U.S. statistics, as almost 2 million of around 2,042,000 farms nationwide use white producers.

Colorado Farm Bureau’s Taylor Szilagyi concedes that the organization’s membership demographics “tend to reflect those of the state,” Szilagyi said. Colorado’s population breaks down as 67% white, 22% Latino and almost 5% African American, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

But she has noticed an “increasingly younger” board of directors at the farm bureau over the years, “and the number of females in leadership roles on the county and state level as well as within our young farmers and ranchers group has grown.”

History of Black settlements in Colorado

Discourse around westward expansion and Manifest Destiny often elicits thoughts “of white cowboys and white landowners,” said Dexter Nelson II, associate curator of Black history and cultural heritage at History Colorado. “Luckily, here, in Colorado, we’re trying to rectify that.”

He highlighted two of the state’s Black settlements: Dearfield and The Dry. They attracted residents of Nicodemus, Kansas – a town established by formerly enslaved people in 1877.

Dearfield – dubbed by the National Park Service as “the largest Black homesteading settlement in Colorado” – was founded east of Greeley around 1910 in Weld County by entrepreneur Oliver Toussaint Jackson. It hit its peak between 1917 and 1921, with hundreds of residents. In the decades to come, the town fell into a state of abandonment, but is now on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Black American West Museum & Heritage Center and the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley are spearheading an effort to one day bring visitors back to Dearfield, Nelson said.

Meanwhile, west of La Junta in southeast Colorado, The Dry was formed around the same time as Dearfield by sisters Josephine and Lenora Rucker, with help from former state senator George Swink. “They were recruiting people from as far as Oklahoma to come and homestead,” Nelson said.

Environmental factors and vandalism decimated most of The Dry’s structures, “but that doesn’t mean you can’t still tell the story,” he added. Today, an exhibit at History Colorado is solely focused on the settlement.

Alice McDonald, 88, watched her birthplace, The Dry, change over the years. In 1915, her parents arrived at the settlement to homestead, with hopes to farm the land.

But The Dry was just that: dry. The community installed an irrigation system, but a flood in 1923 damaged it irreparably.

“Of course, no one was able to farm, and the people were very disillusioned,” McDonald said. “People began to move away, but our family stayed.”

Instead, the McDonalds turned to cattle. The youngest of three, “we not only took care of our cattle and milked and went to school,” McDonald says. “We also worked in the fields, helping out to make money.”

She grew up in the area until leaving for Colorado State Teachers College, what is now UNC in Greeley, to pursue a career in education. Teaching brought her to Kansas City, Denver and Los Angeles.

McDonald and her husband returned to Manzanola decades later to be with her mother, who died in 2008 at the age of 109. “I like it here,” she says. “It’s home.”

Now, she usually fills her days with gardening and taking care of her chickens, but is always open to talking about the days of The Dry.

“We need to know more about the contributions that different races and cultures have made here in the U.S. – particularly here in the West,” McDonald says.

George Junne, coordinator of Africana studies at UNC, estimates there were at least 25 attempts to build Black colonies statewide, including in the Akron area and in Chapelton, which neighbored Dearfield.

Near the former town in northeast Colorado, Black farmers aimed to build a community called “Easyville,” but it never came to fruition, Junne said. Many settlements were wiped out during the Dust Bowl in the early 20th century, forcing residents to move back to Denver.

“All around the West, you have Black people that were in cattle ranching,” he says, pointing to evidence of Black cowgirls and cowboys in Colorado leading cattle drives.

Before the Civil War, kidnapped Africans were forced to raise cattle for Florida’s ranching industry, Junne says. After the war ended, a number of Black people left the South for Colorado, although a few “came out before that because they were running away from slavery,” he added.

Black ranchers in Colorado

Two hours south of Dearfield, Carrie Daniels runs DP Ranch in Calhan with her husband Demitrius.

The former – a white woman – hails from New York and spent her early years helping out on her aunt’s dairy farm in Pennsylvania, while the latter is a Georgia native and disabled veteran turned Black farmer. The couple started their ranch in 2011 after moving to Colorado to care for a family member.

The pair used to work with Katahdin hair sheep and Berkshire pigs, but the COVID-19 pandemic complicated meat processing. Now, they mainly focus on chickens and produce.

“Where we’re at, I have not seen too many new or more diversified farmers,” Daniels says. But across the U.S., she has noticed “a big intake of women farmers and a lot more Black farmers.”

Terrance Boyd counts as one of the state’s Black ranchers to recently join the industry. Now the owner of Wild Boyd Farm, he moved from Denver to Matheson – around 100 miles southeast of the city – shortly before the pandemic to homestead with his wife and three children.

“I kind of always wanted to get out of the city,” says Boyd, who grew up in the state’s capital. “When interest rates dropped, we found a spot out here in rural America, where we essentially wanted to be.”

He contends that “land access is difficult for any race.”

Boyd’s family soon expanded to raising animals, including Shorthorn cattle, Katahdin hair sheep, goats and chickens. They also care for apple, peach and cherry trees, along with other fruits.

“This is how we survive. This is how we live,” he says. His business has attracted clients through word of mouth.

“I didn’t come out here to see if people treat me differently,” Boyd says. “I experienced it in Denver. You experience it if you go to any place.”

Latino, Native American ranchers in Colorado

Latinos have ranched in Colorado since 1844 with the Sangre de Cristo land grant – a Mexican land grant that encompassed around 1.4 million acres in southern Colorado’s San Luis Valley and Sangre de Cristo Mountains, according to Colorado Encyclopedia.

“Most of these land grants were big ranches, basically – to people who were politically connected and people who wanted to start a new life and were willing to move up into that area,” says Roger Hardaway, professor of history at Northwestern Oklahoma State University.

Located southeast of Alamosa, the town of San Luis de la Culebra was founded in 1851. There, Latino settlers would share the common land, or La Sierra, to ranch, among other activities. The National Park Service lauded their early farming efforts as “among the most successful anywhere.”

Also along the state’s southern border, Baca County is named after Don Felipe de Jesus Baca, a Latino sheep rancher who’s considered “one of the first settlers of the Purgatoire River valley,” Colorado Encyclopedia reports.

What’s now Colorado was initially inhabited by the Apache, Arapaho, Cheyenne, Puebloans, Shoshone and Ute.

Among nomadic Indigenous tribes, men commonly served as hunters and warriors, with gathering and agricultural work allotted to women, Hardaway says. Once they were forced onto reservations, “the men resisted being farmers because they had this whole tradition that women did that, but they took to cattle raising a lot better.”

Ultimately, Hardaway says old-school Hollywood – the days of Wayne and Cooper – got its casting of Western movies wrong, leaving out Native Americans, African Americans, Latinos and women of all ethnicities. Women like Brown.

“I want people to come away from this realizing that the West was very multicultural,” Hardaway says. “Everybody was out there.”

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