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Two Montezuma County properties honored as Centennial Farms and Ranches

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Friday, Aug. 31, 2018 9:17 PM
Vern Koppenhafer stands in the doorway of the farmhouse where he was born.
Vern Koppenhafer still cuts alfalfa on his farm south of Cortez.
Vern and Ruth Koppenhafer pose outside in front of the garden that Ruth says she must have every year.
An early family portrait of the Koppenhafer family.
Nomie, Nellie and DeVota Koppenhafer wash clothes outside the original homestead.
Gale Greenlee talks about the early days on the ranch. A 100-year-old corn planter, left, is among the old equipment stored in a field.
Gale Greenlee still raises cattle on the 100-year-old ranch on County Road H.
Gale Greenlee discusses one of the original homestead buildings that still stands at the 100-year-old ranch.
The original blacksmith shop still has some of the 100-year-old tools stored in the log building on the Greenlee farm.
The first outhouse at the Greenlee Ranch sits in a field.
The original home still stands at the Greenlee Ranch.

What brought people west to Colorado was hope for prosperity and the allure of gold, but what kept them there was the agriculture.

Land is a limited commodity, so settlers staked their claim and held onto it, establishing towns and settlements to support one another and creating a foundation before the population boom during the gold rush. Family farms and ranches helped create the Colorado that exists today, and more than a century later, many live on.

To celebrate this tradition of agriculture, 31 Colorado farms and ranches were honored last week at the Colorado State Fair in Pueblo during the 32nd annual Centennial Farms and Ranches ceremony, including two in Montezuma County.

To qualify for the award, the farms and ranches must have remained in the same family for 100 years or more, be a working property and have at least 160 acres or gross $1,000 in annual sales, according to History Colorado. The 31 properties will give Colorado a total of 581 Centennial Farms and Ranches.

Recipients receive a certificate signed by Gov. John Hickenlooper, Colorado Commissioner of Agriculture Don Brown and Executive Director of History Colorado Steve Turner, along with Centennial Farm and Ranch signs to display on their properties.

Koppenhafer Ranch and Frank Greenlee Farm are two of those recipients, and sitting just outside the city of Cortez, they bring the honor of agricultural roots and decades of endurance to Montezuma County.

The owners of Koppenhafer Ranch and Frank Greenlee Farm couldn’t be more proud to contribute to Colorado’s heritage of agriculture, and are glad to get recognition after lifetimes of work. A hundred years brings with it more than its fair share of challenges, and these properties persevered through them all.

Koppenhafer Ranch (1918-present)Koppenhafer Ranch has been in operation for more than 100 years, but it has been with the Koppenhafer family for the past century.

John Koppenhafer, current owner Vern Koppenhafer’s grandfather, bought the 80-acre ranch on March 16, 1918. From there it passed down through the family, to Vern’s father, George Koppenhafer, and then to Vern and his wife, Anna Ruth, in 1990.

When Vern and Anna Ruth took over, the place needed a lot of work.

“My dad was 85 when he passed away, and the fences were rundown, and it was bad,” Vern said.

“We decided we’d buy the home place, and we have changed it a bunch. We pretty much tore everything down and started from scratch.”

All the fences on the property are new, and the house that Vern and Anna Ruth live in is new, too. The old house, in which Vern was born in 1936, has since been repurposed into a storage shed.

Vern is one of 13 children who were raised on the farm and remembers just how different life used to be. The ranch used to raise grain, hay, poultry, sheep, hogs, dairy and cattle and had a vegetable garden. He said he remembers his mother having more than 100 laying hens whose eggs they’d trade in town for things like groceries. The family also milked cows and sold cream to the Cortez creamery twice a week. Now, Koppenhafer Ranch just raises hay and cattle and maintains the vegetable garden and some horses.

Vern also recalled how farming practices have changed with technology. They didn’t have running water or electricity until Vern was in high school and had to use self-made ice boxes since they had no refrigeration system. Vern also had to use a team of horses pulling a mower to cut the hay, and the work was pure manpower.

“It has changed since we started because (Vern) cut hay with the little sickle mower and then raked it and baled it in the little bales,” Anna Ruth said. “Then we muscled all of them, used a team and a slick to haul a lot of it, and stacked them. We didn’t have elevators – we muscled the bales up on top of the stack. Now it’s mostly with the tractor.”

Aside from the labor of their lifestyle, a lot of their hardships over the years have come from weather.

“Weather has a lot to do with how farmers make out,” Anna Ruth said. “Us ourselves have been through some hard times droughtwise.

“The drought in ’02 was a booger because we had to sell our herd. The only thing we kept were a few heifers, and we had to start all over again with the cattle. I foresee our son having to do that this year.”

Their son Vance lives at and operates a ranch in Mancos that Vern and Anna Ruth also own. He has been hit hard by this year’s drought. Anna Ruth said that he’s already cut his herd, but it’s still not looking good.

“I’ll tell you when you raise them cows from a baby calf all the way up and then have to sell them whenever they’re just in their prime, it hurts, and it hurts bad,” Vern said.

A bad year can really determine the future of a farm, but Koppenhafer Ranch has persevered through the Great Depression and droughts, and the pride Vern and Anna Ruth have for their place is visible. They hope one of their other sons, Chance, who is a veterinarian and rancher in Iowa, takes over the property after them.

“I think if any way possible, Chance will make sure it stays in the Koppenhafer family,” Vern said. “Our son Vance will take over the Mancos property.”

Frank Greenlee Farm (1916-present)Named after current owner Gale Greenlee’s grandfather, Frank Greenlee Farm sits about 7 miles east of Koppenhafer Ranch and encompasses 320 acres. Frank came out to Colorado with his wife, Molly, and their children, including Gale’s father, George, in 1915, Gale said, after bouncing around to different farms in Oklahoma, Nebraska and Wyoming.

“My grandfather came out really following his mother,” Gale said. “My great-grandmother was the real pioneer who moved here, but she didn’t have anything to do with this property particularly. The real attraction was cheap land.”

Gale said Frank and the family loaded up all their farming equipment into a train car and took a broad gauge train from Nebraska to Alamosa, where they had to switch to a narrow gauge train for the remainder of the journey to Dolores. The idea of land ownership attracted the young couple, and they were determined to realize their dream.

“You might say they created 160 acres of the 320 through the Homestead Act,” Gale said. “They bought the other 160 acres from another homesteader in 1918.”

The Homestead Act allowed applicants to acquire ownership of plots of land provided they had never taken up arms against the U.S. government and were willing to commit several years to developing the land. Gale’s grandparents filed such an application and were approved 160 acres.

They started putting up buildings, including the main house, a blacksmith shop and an outhouse, but were in for some surprises when it came to farming.

“The original farm was intended to be a corn farm,” Gale said. “And it was OK, it was a dryland corn and wheat farm. It was reasonably successful, but it was kind of a hard proposition to try to farm out here. It’s just too dry.”

Frank and Molly tried to raise corn, wheat and alfalfa and had some farm animals but couldn’t sustain it for long. Gale chuckled remembering that his grandfather raised pigs even when cattle would have done better because “that was what he knew.”

Even today, the majority of Gale’s land is dryland pasture for his cattle and horses. The canal that runs through his property is a recent addition and only irrigates a portion of his land.

Gale wasn’t raised on the original Frank Greenlee Farm – he and his two sisters grew up a couple of miles west on a farm his parents bought in 1940, but they visited their grandparents often. He fully inherited both places in 1999 and set to work growing the family property.

“Gale’s just gradually bought everything in between so that the homestead and his parents’ place are now connected,” Gale’s wife, Pat Walker, said. “It’s all Greenlee land now.”

Gale estimates his total property to be “about 2,600 acres of private, deeded ground,” which he described as his “life’s work.” All his land borders either Bureau of Land Management land or federally owned land as part of Mesa Verde National Park, which Pat described as “just wonderful.”

“There’s something about ownership that just feels good,” Gale said. He said he always knew he wanted to be a rancher, and that it’s a rewarding life to live.

When it’s time, Gale expects that the farm will pass on to his three children, two of whom live in Cortez. From there, it’s out of his hands.

“What they do with it is up to them,” he said. “I don’t try to do anything to dictate what they might do with it. They indicate they’d like to keep it in the family for some time, and I hope they will.”

Gale holds a pretty laid-back attitude about his kids keeping with the family tradition in farming, and as far as advice for keeping future generations interested, he said, “expose it to the kids when they’re young. If they like it, they really like it, and if they don’t, they don’t.”

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