The smell of wet dirt
The story of a family farm in southeast Colorado
This isn't just any story, this is my story. I was born and raised in Eads, Colorado – a small town in the southeast corner of the state. My mom is a kindergarten teacher and my dad farms.
Not many people could understand the appeal of 14+ hour work days, the grease-stained clothes, or how the smell of wet dirt might just be as close to heaven as we'll ever get, but some people do.
Five generations deep in a small town in southeast Colorado, there is a family working to preserve the concept of the family farm. This family is mine.
Long gone is the slow-paced life that our fathers and grandfathers knew before us. I talked to my dad about the transformation of this lifestyle. “What I miss is small farm stuff. When I first started there would be ten guys meeting at the fuel pumps in the evening to fill up their pickups and trucks to go to the field the next morning. Small farms are a thing of the past,” he says. “Everything is just a lot faster-paced now. My granddad said you would stop at the end of the field to talk to the neighbors, we would stop in the middle of the road, and now people are just going so damn fast they don’t stop at all to visit.”
Tri-County Farms is an approximate 20,000-acre operation in southeast Colorado. The farm is run by my dad, Jeff, along with two of his brothers, Doug and Stacy, along with their father (and my grandfather), Keith. Two of my cousins, Dustin and Hayden, have also come home to work the family land.
The men behind the curtain: my dad, uncles and cousins making a game plan during wheat harvest.
It’s not very often that people choose to move, or move back, to eastern Colorado, so I asked them to think back and recall their decisions to take on the family farm. For my grandpa, it wasn’t that he came back home to farm, it was that he never left: “The reason I started was because when I got out of school, my dad was a farmer and he needed help. So I went to work and never got out.” For my dad and uncles, it was different. “I guess I was gone long enough to realize I wanted to come back because this is where I wanted to be,” my dad said. “It just kind of happened,” my uncle, Doug, laughed. “I put an application in at Lamar to be a mechanic and they hired me on the spot. It made dad mad, so he said he’d pay me $700 a month to stay here.”
The most recent generation of Uhlands, my generation, began this lifestyle within the last 10 years. Dustin remembers his choice to move back home and farm, as he and his father, Doug, had talked about when he was younger. “The opportunity came and there was land for sale so I did it,” he said. “I guess lot of it was that you just start to miss what you did when you were younger.” His brother, Hayden, agreed. “Another major reason for coming home to the family farm was because I was raised on it and fell in love with it all at a young age,” he said. “I loved watching dad and the uncles and learning new stuff from them every day. They showed me what hard work really was and I always looked up to them for that.”
Four generations: Team work makes the dream work. Not everyone is involved in the farm anymore, but we all grew up with the same values and on the same land. Pictured are my grandparents, their four sons, their 10 grandchildren, and 11 of their 17 great-grandchildren.
My own graduation from Colorado State University is quickly approaching. Along with that comes the time for me to decide where I want to plant my own roots. Though I love helping with wheat harvest in the summers, I don’t really want to be a farmer. I wasn’t anticipating to move back to that corner of the world immediately after graduation, but then a job opportunity came along. After a lot of thinking, I decided to take the job – one that will bring me back to my family and back to the agriculture world that I love. After all, it’s in my blood. “It’s amazing how many people end up back home,” my dad said. “That’s why they call it home,” my mom quickly added.
"Blessed are they who see beautiful things in humble places where other people see nothing."
- Camille Pissarro
Farm life isn't for everyone, but it's something very special. I feel fortunate to have grown up outside of a small town on a dirt road and in a place where you can watch the sun set and see the stars shine. I have loved growing up alongside my cousins and watching our fathers and grandfather build and grow the family business.
Each day and each struggle brought a new life lesson to the table, but the most important thing that the farm taught me was the value of hard work. Growing up, I watched my dad and uncles, and they are some of the hardest workers I've ever known. There would be summers when I wouldn't see my dad for days at a time – he would head off to work long before the rest of the world was awake, and return home only when the job was done and after I was fast asleep.
Into the night: the view from the cab of a combine as the sun sets during wheat harvest.
As I got older, I got to be a little more involved in the farming operation. Between softball games and basketball camps, summer days were spent at the wheat field. Delivering lunches, moving vehicles, and picking up spare parts were quickly replaced with driving the grain cart and eventually running a combine. "The piece of advice my grandma told me when Stacy and I got married, because she'd been married to a farmer for however many years, she said 'never learn how to drive a tractor, only bring meals to the field,'" my aunt, Monica, laughed. "Don't do it once or it will be your job forever," my grandma, Bobbie, added. They were right about that. Regardless of my duty on the farm, I'm proud to be a part of the legacy.
More than a business - the family farm is a lifestyle - an ideal worth preserving.
The small, family farm lifestyle that builds character and promotes hard work is being destroyed by corporations, urbanization, and economic imbalances. Per the USDA 2015 Agriculture Census Data, 97 percent of U.S. farms are family-owned. However, the number of corporate farms is on the rise and small family farms are quickly disappearing. “It’s become more corporate because of legal issues,” my uncle, Stacy, said. “Everyone is trying to protect themselves from a lawyer.” Doug said, “I think we’ll probably see they day when there will be New York investors buying land and hiring people to farm it. The big investors will be looking for people like us who have put together a big chunk of ground and try to buy us out and have us farm it.”
As the farming community ages and urban life becomes more appealing, the future doesn’t look very bright for family farms. The American Farmland Trust estimated that an acre of farmland goes into development every two minutes and the National Agriculture Statistics Service reported that in 2013, the average age of the principal operator on the farm was 58.9 years old. Younger generations can’t afford the $500 thousand start-up costs to work a job requiring much more than a 40-hour work week. “It’s too expensive now for a young kid to start on his own,” Doug said. “It ain’t an easy life, but it’s a good life. When it’s time to work, it's time to work. They are 16 to 18 hour days and not many kids stick around to do it. Sometimes I wonder why we did.”
The next generation: my uncle, Doug, with his oldest grandson, Hudson, getting ready to cut some wheat.
Photo Credit: Rhonda Uhland
You don’t have to grow up on a family farm to know the benefits. You are in command of your own hours and get the opportunity to be home with family for the holidays. You oversee your own destiny and all the decisions made. You are surrounded by farmers working together and kids learning the trade from generations of family. And don’t forget the dirt. “Right now what I miss is the smell of fresh-turned wet dirt. There is not a better smell than that,” my dad said. “I don’t smell it that much anymore, mainly because it doesn’t rain much around here. But wet dirt is just a good smell.” My uncle agrees, “I like the smell of tilled, wet dirt, and I like the looks of it. I mean, there isn’t anything better than turning over some wet dirt, and you don’t get to very often."
Living the American Dream
A collection of photos and videos from my family's farm - all taken and recorded by me.
Soundtrack: "American Dream" written by my cousin, Rhett Uhland, about life on the farm
*All photos and videos were taken and edited by me unless otherwise noted*