Selling the family farm
GREELEY – Steve Zeiler heard the random car whisk by. That was decades ago.Now the thrum of traffic is constant outside Zeiler’s 100-year-old farmhouse, which sits on the north side of U.S. Highway 34, about two miles east of Interstate 25 in Weld County.Traffic flows unabated in both directions – from Greeley, which stretches westward along the corridor, and from the I-25 interchange, epicenter of the latest regional boom. In the southeast corner of the interchange, earthmovers rumble over hundreds of acres of former farmland.For some remaining farmers along Highway 34, the clamor of development is a grating reminder that their rural heritage is gone for good. Zeiler, who sold his property about a year ago, doesn’t know what to make of his newfound wealth.”I always said I farmed because I loved the sunshine and couldn’t stand prosperity,” he said. “Now, I’m going to have to get used to the prosperity.”The value of his family farm increased 100-fold since Zeiler’s parents bought it. They moved to the land in 1934 and bought it for $50,000 in 1948, he said. About a year ago, the 320 acres sold for about $5 million to a group of investors calling itself Miracle on 34 LLC. “I paid more for a tractor than my folks paid for the farm,” he said.Now Zeiler is gradually liquidating everything, including the tractor, to make way for retail and rooftops. About 120 acres along the highway is slated for commercial projects. The land in back of the property is tabbed for as many as 800 homes.Zeiler said he plans to farm his land until the stores and homes come – ground could be broken on residential lots later this year – or even as it’s developed.”It’s inevitable,” he said of the change. “We’ve always had growth – sometimes faster than others.”
One of his cousins, Kathy Weinmeister, grew up nearby but has since moved to Loveland. She still owns a valuable chunk of land along U.S. 34.”I’m sure that we’ll succumb to the money thing as everyone else has,” Weinmeister said. “But I won’t do it with a smile on my face.”For Zeiler, it came down to economics. As a farmer, he figured he earned pennies per square foot.He was well aware that raw land along the highway sells for 75 cents per square foot and often more. Raw land in the corridor slated for commercial projects fetches as much as $2 to $3 per square foot.”I’m just going to go along for the ride,” he said. “I couldn’t think of a better investment.”Zeiler, 55, has a 20 percent stake in the five-partner group that bought the land. He figures it will be a few years, maybe sooner, before the family homestead gets bulldozed.”I hate to see this place go, but you couldn’t move it very far and the land would be expensive to put it on, if there’s any around,” he said of the white farmhouse. “It wouldn’t be the same.”Zeiler, a divorced father of three, has thought about ranching or buying a fishing lodge or maybe a pineapple farm. He hopes to carry on the rural life somewhere else. Northern Colorado is fast becoming a large city.”It used to be a grain elevator and a sugar factory in every town,” Zeiler said. “Now there’s a Wal-Mart and a McDonald’s.”Holding onto the farm
Weinmeister has heard of farmers who are getting $25,000 to $35,000 an acre for their land. Along with two brothers and her mother, she owns 640 acres just east of the Zeiler farm.A few people have expressed interest in the land, she said, even though it’s not up for sale.”It’s been real estate people just out here kicking around trying to see if they can make a buck,” Weinmeister said.She and her siblings grew up on the farm, which was bought by her grandfather and produced corn, beets and beans.Weinmeister is 65 and her youngest brother is 60. She and her siblings have decided to sell the property in their lifetime. It’s hard enough to agree on terms as a small group, they figure, so there’s no point leaving it to the many in the next generation.They’ll likely sell the farm, which they currently lease to a farmer, in the next three to five years, she said. It will be a sad day for Weinmeister.”I don’t think these cement cities are pretty, and these God-awful malls that encourage people to spend money they don’t have are insane,” she said. “We’ll have a Denver up here and I’ll have to leave, because I don’t like it.”Zeiler, born in Greeley and raised on the eastern edge of Larimer County, said the mature trees along U.S. 34 mark the sites of old farmhouses, many long gone. When his parents moved to the five-bedroom, two-story homestead – at the time one of the largest between Greeley and Loveland – the highway was a dirt road. Zeiler matter-of-factly expects U.S. 34 to end up as urbanized as Colfax Avenue in Denver.”When they put the four-lane in we didn’t know why because there wasn’t much traffic, but now they might as well have put a six-lane or eight-lane in,” he said.
‘Used to be family’Construction is booming at the I-25-U.S. 34 interchange, where Loveland-based McWhinney Enterprises first developed an outlet mall, and now Medical Center of the Rockies and the 700,000-square-foot Promenade Shops at Centerra. The interchange is convenient connection – to health care, shops, offices and other cities, said Gary Hoover, president of Hartford Homes Inc. and a partner in Miracle on 34. Hoover also owns other land the area.”They had the foresight to see that that intersection would be a powerful intersection someday,” Hoover said of the original developers. “And, indeed, that has been the case.”But what some view as inevitable growth others see as unwelcome encroachment. Mary Kness, 89, now lives on a couple acres along County Road 3, next to where her family had a 160-acre farm. She and her husband raised their children on the farm they bought in 1938. Part of their former property is home to the Northern Colorado Rehabilitation Hospital, which opened last year.”The hospital is right on the spot where my home and garden was,” Kness said.Kness, who lives with her daughter, laments the vanishing homesteads along U.S. 34. “We old-timers aren’t too happy with it all,” she said. “We’d rather see it in farms. I’m a widow, and right now there isn’t a neighbor I could call on if I needed help,” she said. “We used to be like family in through here, so it isn’t what it used to be.”Vail, Colorado