A rancher pinched by water woes and urban sprawl

Field Bohart, wiry and homespun, scans the endless horizon where dabs of sagebrush and grama grass cap a grit-blown section of Colorado rangeland.

''I'm starting to feel cramped,'' he says, gazing out over his 48,000-acre spread in southeastern Colorado. ''A lot of people are moving in around me.''

Mr. Bohart is a tough Colorado rancher with a handshake that could crack a black walnut.

Yet even his knife-edged business instincts are no safeguard against the forces crowding in on his way of earning a living. Like ranchers across the state and much of the Rocky Mountain West, Field Bohart is staring, grim-faced, into an uncertain future.

Colorado's agriculture-based economy is rapidly turning into an energy- and high-technology-based economy.

Suburban sprawl, competition for water and labor, and lean economic times are pinching cattlemen here. Some pessimists predict that ranchers, whose sturdy values have shaped the West, are slowly passing into folklore.

But others, perhaps less sentimental, argue that the ranching industry will come out trimmer and tougher than ever.

''Agriculture is going to go through a couple of the toughest years it's ever gone through,'' says Morgan Smith, state agriculture commissioner. But he believes worldwide pressures for more food will insure a permanent home on the range for farmers and ranchers.

Ranching is the backbone of the state's approximately $3.2 billion-a-year agricultural industry. Except for California, Colorado puts out more farm products than any other state west of Kansas. Nationwide, it ranks about 15th as a farm state.

Next to manufacturing, ranching and farming have traditionally been the chief spark plugs in the state's economic machine. But in 1981, for the first time, construction was expected to outpace ranching and farming. This is a reflection of the depth of the current building boom across the state, and it also says something about the sputtering state of conditions down on the farm.

Net income for Colorado's farmers and ranchers plummeted 75 percent between 1980 and 1981. It's expected to dip further this year, leaving the state's 26, 500 farm families netting an average of about $3,000 each.

Punishing bank rates, a beef market that hasn't kept pace with inflation, and the escalating cost of running a farm have contributed to the bare-bones outlook. Another problem has been a shift in consumer tastes away from beef toward poultry and fish - a trend the Colorado Cattlemen's Association and others are trying to change through a nationwide ''eat beef'' advertising blitz.

But there are other problems facing Colorado farmers and ranchers:

* Water. In the table-flat Eastern Plains, the Ogallala Aquifer is being sucked dry. The water level of this craggy-shaped formation, stretching underground from South Dakota to Texas, has dropped by as much as 40 feet in some areas over the past 25 years. By the year 2020, irrigated acreage in the region is expected to decline 40 percent.

Farmers are already pinching pennies just to meet pumping costs. One solution under consideration is diverting water from the Missouri or South Platte rivers into Colorado and other areas. But in the arid West, such diversions are about as popular as an invasion of locusts. Other options: promoting conservation, boosting different kinds of development, or growing more ''low-water'' crops (such as sunflowers and Jerusalem artichoke, a starchy tuber that can be eaten or tapped for fuel use).

Along Colorado's western slope, farmers and ranchers are jostling for water supplies with energy developers. By one estimate, oil shale development in this region alone could consume as much as 600,000 to 740,000 acre-feet of water a year over the next 15 years. There are also coal fields, new power plants, and thirsty, growing communities to contend with. Agriculture now accounts for 94 percent of the state's water consumption.

* Suburban sprawl. Shopping centers and parking lots are gobbling up ranchland and cornfields. More than 1 million acres of farmland between Fort Collins and Colorado Springs have gone out of production in the last two decades (although the amount of irrigated acreage across the state has gone up). Moreover, many ranchers, with an eye on retirement, are selling their land to developers.

Loss of farm land is made worse by population growth: The Front Range, from Fort Collins to Pueblo, is expected to have 1.25 million more people in 20 years.

Field Bohart has seen hundreds of acres go to speculators and developers. ''The only way the growth can come is east,'' says this third-generation rancher. ''Consequently you get more and more people. And cattle and people just don't mix.''

But in tending to his 1,200 to 1,600 head of cattle, Mr. Bohart may face some more immediate worries. The price of a rod of barbed wire (a quarter-mile strand) has jumped from $21 to $32 in five years. ''Cake,'' biscuit-sized chunks of cattle feed, has more than doubled in the same period.

On the other side of the ledger, the Bohart steers that brought 80 cents a pound last year now would be lucky to fetch 61 cents. And it may get worse before it gets better.

''There is going to be some fairly severe squeezing of feedlot operators and producers,'' he predicts.

Yet Mr. Bohart is surviving, partly because he runs a tight ranch. He spends a lot of time on the phone with his accountant and a lot of time on the crackling two-way radio in his truck talking to ranch hands. He puts his business degree to good use.

''To me it's a business first and foremost,'' he says of ranching. ''That's the way you have to look at it, if you are going to survive.''

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