Drought strengthens rancher
Walking over the brittle field, her shoes sounding the crunch of parched land, Becky Sandefur mourns the loss of the earth's fertility. “It's heartbreaking,” she said.
For Sandefur, the land bears the story, of heat, drought and fear, although hope is always around the bend. “We go on faith, hoping it'll rain,” she said.
Owner of Becky's Bovines and Brews in Highland Meadows in southern Teller County, Sandefur runs a dairy business that offers fresh milk and homemade cheese from the 80-acre ranch. For the past several years, the enterprise has been self-sustaining. Until now.
With one of two wells going dry, in addition to a dry pond and another gradually evaporating, Sandefur has reduced the herd to five cows and a bull. Nonetheless, she has her fingers crossed that the five will produce calves in January.
The well supplies water for the household but the pond nourishes the livestock that includes five horses. “If something happens to the pond, I'm finished,” she said.
Keen to voices of the land, Sandefur mourns the loss of what used to be. “There aren't any frogs here,” she said, standing near the empty pond with dead trees in the bed announcing the effects of the drought. As well, frogs disappear, she said, when the water goes away.
With the parched conditions, Sandefur has quit making cheese and providing milk for her customers. “Normally I have 10 cows that give milk,” she said.
Talking about the drought, Sandefur switches between fatalism and optimism. “This is the worst I've ever seen it,” she said. “But I have to admit, you can see the green tinge out here from the spring rains.”
Unlike other seasons of drought, the wind is the enemy. “Look at these dust devils out here,” she said. “And the erosion is phenomenal. We used to have soft dirt in the arena but not anymore; we watch the wind come and take it.”
For a short time in those 30 years, Sandefur left the land. “I went to Italy to study to be a chef,” she said, adding that her ancestors are from Chipprano. “That's how the dairy-ing came about.”
In 1988, she married Teller County Sgt. Roger Sandefur and became a self-described stay-at-home mom while working the ranch chiefly by herself. “For the dairy, things were awesome until about 2008,” she said. “But now the price of feed is so high; it probably cost me a lot more to produce that gallon of milk than to go to the grocery store.”
While she still makes her wine, dandelion and Chianti, stomping the California grapes herself, Sandefur cleans the fermenting equipment at the car wash in Divide.
A native of Detroit, Sandefur is tough in ways that reflect the Western sense of independence and a deep love of family, her husband and their adult children, Joe and Carlotta. “I have to provide for the family first,” she said.
Yet, to date, she has no intention of quitting. “You know, things could turn around,” she said.
On the other hand, Sandefur admits that this drought is different, due to the increase in the winds as well as the Arctic fronts that bring no moisture.
“We're seeing the end of an era; I don't know if it's going to come back or not,” she said.