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Plains tourism pitch: Head east for peace, quiet and solitude

Getting away from it all has gotten increasingly difficult in Colorado’s high country. 

Heading west, I-70 is prone to traffic snarls, Vail and Breckenridge are the busiest ski resorts in the U.S., and lodging and lift ticket prices are sky-high. 

Then there are the great outdoors. Campgrounds in the mountains are at capacity and some primitive areas have been overrun to the point of closure. Trailhead parking fills up in the early hours. 

Go east, and the number of tourists per acre plummets drastically. An estimated 200,000 people visit Pawnee National Grassland and Comanche National Grassland in Colorado in a given year, which total more than 600,000 acres between them. Meanwhile, the 266,000-acre Rocky Mountain National Park had 4.4 million visitors in 2021. 

Run the numbers, and there are probably about 50 times more tourists per acre in Rocky Mountain National Park than there are in Comanche National Grassland. 

And that’s the crux of the plains tourism pitch: Want peace, quiet, and nobody else around? We’ve got it. 

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Marilee Johnson, director of the Sterling Tourist Information Center for Logan County in northeastern Colorado, came up with a new tagline on a road trip about four years ago: Free Range Tourism. 

“Our tourism is the opposite of a tourist trap, so to speak,” she says. “You don’t stand in line and there are no traffic jams.

The traffic on the ExploreSterling.com website jumped by 300% in 2020 as lodging tax revenue declined by 6%, a victory in Johnson’s view. “We did fare better than the statewide figures and the national figures,” she says. “When the pandemic hit, that almost worked to our advantage, tourism-wise, because we targeted the Front Range.” 

In 2021, lodging tax receipts jumped by 22%. “People were looking to get outdoors and out in open spaces, so we pushed that in 2020 and continued that last year. Now we are expanding that” says Johnson. 

“We have, of course, a little bit different view on attracting tourists than other places,” she adds. “In Estes Park, they’re trying to figure out ways to manage all those tourists. Here we are, like, ‘Come! Come here!’” 

The strategy: doubling down on digital advertising by expanding to adjacent states and developing content for the TravelStorys app. 

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The retired chief of interpretation at Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site, Rick Wallner is board president of the Canyons & Plains of Southeast Colorado Regional Heritage Taskforce.  

Wallner says tourism in the area is “recovering and in some cases bouncing back really good,” citing increases in lodging tax revenues in 2022 after down years in 2020 and 2021. “We’re starting to see more people discover this part of Colorado. The Colorado Tourism Office has been really good working with us and pushing this area of Colorado. We’re still looking for visitors, whereas some areas of Colorado are overrun with visitors and just can’t support the visitation they have now. 

Down here, you can go out and have the place to yourself—and really get away from it all,” he adds. “We have places like Picketwire Canyonlands, Picture Canyon and Carrizo Canyon that are really beautiful. People always think of the plains as flat, nothing, but we have some really pretty canyon country down here.” 

Wallner says heritage tourism is another regional draw with Bent’s Old Fort, Sand Creek Massacre, and newly minted Amache national historic sites. In 2021, Canyons & Plains promoted the 200th anniversary of the Santa Fe Trail.  

But some other strategies are undeniably forward-looking: The organization recently commissioned artists to create works depicting local history and landmarks. Canyons & Plains is now promoting the region with non-fungible tokens (NFTs) of the artworks. 

“Obviously, the ultimate goal is economic development, economic diversity,” Wallner says. “The southeast part of Colorado isn’t exactly booming economically, and this is a way to improve the economies, to bring in tourism dollars to southeast Colorado, and that’s certainly the pitch we make when we go out to county commissioners or lodging tax boards for support.” 

Tourism Distancing Travel Tourism Report
 Photographer: Ben Lehman, Lehman Images

VistaWorks, a Buena Vista-based destination management and marketing firm, is the agency of record for the Prowers County Lodging Tax Board. The staff spent several days on an immersion trip after finalizing the contract in 2019. 

“What we found about this region is: It’s so peaceful,” says Lindsay Diamond, chief storyteller at VistaWorks. “There are sunflower fields and tall green grasses, and there’s just a peace down there with different energy than a mountain town. It’s slow, you can take a breath, and the sunsets over the prairie are just phenomenal.”

Beyond Prowers County, VistaWorks has also promoted La Junta and other destinations on Colorado’s Eastern Plains. “All of our clients have seen year-to-year growth, so we feel like we’ve been successful,” Diamond says. 

“There is a lot of potential,” she adds. “They’re growing, they know there are more initiatives now to promote tourism and to also share the benefits of tourism with their community. All of that’s happening, and it’s really exciting. The plains are pretty special and shouldn’t be overlooked when compared to the mountains.” 

That said, the pile of money that’s cumulatively gone into branding Colorado as a mountain destination might rival the peaks themselves. It’s not just state and local campaigns, it’s countless beer and SUV ads, scores of Hollywood productions, and general public perception at this point. 

“Colorado has a bad habit of only promoting the mountains. Well, that’s a third of the state,” notes Richard Taylor, co-owner of Sundance-High Plains RV Park and Cabins in Lamar. “We’ve got the high desert on one side, the high plains on the other side, but Colorado pretty much promotes the mountains. I understand, it’s been their moneymaker for years, but we need to diversify a bit.”

Taylor and co-owner Derek Mudd have invested about $200,000 in the park since buying it in 2017. Revenue has increased by an average of 20% every year, with visitors from the Front Range helping drive the uptick. 

“Everybody that’s tired of fighting the I-70 traffic getting to the mountains, they’re starting to think about this,” Taylor says. “They want to get away for the weekend, but they don’t want to go to Breckenridge and spend $300 a night.” 

That said, Taylor sees room for improvement. “I think better marketing would be great,” he says. “I don’t think at the moment the area really has a unified front. Lamar’s promoting Lamar, La Junta is promoting La Junta. We need more of a unified front.”  

Summer 2016 Potholes And Monument Canyon Jvanwaveren
Photographer: Johanna vanWaveren

Patricia Calhoun, founder and editor of Westword in Denver, is part of a group that bought the World’s Wonder View Tower in Genoa, 101 miles east of Denver, in 2016. The 65-foot tower sits at the highest point between New York and Denver and is now owned by a nonprofit, Friends of the Genoa Tower. 

The roadside attraction where tourists could stop and see six states has been shuttered since previous owner Jerry Chubbuck died in 2013. Calhoun says the restoration project has been bogged down with water and sewer issues, but she’s hopeful the tower will reopen as a community center by 2026, the tower’s 100th anniversary.  

“The vision is certainly to restore it to its traditional role as a way station for travelers and a gathering place for the community,” she says. “It has always had those two roles, but those will be updated for the 21st century so travelers will be able to charge their electric cars if they want.” 

On the table: artists-in-residence and arts programming for local students, concerts and special events, visitors center, food trucks, drive-in movies and maybe a disc golf course. 

Chubbuck’s collection of bizarre relics was auctioned off, so it won’t be a museum. “No more two-headed cows, although we are certainly still trying to procure a two-headed calf, just because everybody remembers that to the nth degree,” Calhoun says. 

Calhoun is also quick to point out new energy in communities like Hugo and Byers, and the amalgam of old and new is producing some interesting results. 

She says the region needs “critical mass of places for people to go, and — let’s face it—attention. Getting the kind of attention so people know there’s an option. You do not have to drive west on I-70 and get stuck in that horrific traffic every weekend. You could head east almost without any traffic and go to some really stunning places.”   

 

Denver-based writer Eric Peterson is the author of Frommer’s Colorado, Frommer’s Montana & Wyoming, Frommer’s Yellowstone & Grand Teton National Parks and the Ramble series of guidebooks, featuring first-person travelogues covering everything from atomic landmarks in New Mexico to celebrity gone wrong in Hollywood. Peterson has also recently written about backpacking in Yosemite, cross-country skiing in Yellowstone and downhill skiing in Colorado for such publications as Denver’s Westword and The New York Daily News. He can be reached at [email protected]

Colorado Agtech Hits Critical Mass

A third-generation Colorado farmer, Marc Arnusch grows barley and other grains on 2,200 acres in the Prospect Valley east of Keenesburg. 

His son, Brett, joined Marc Arnusch Farms after he graduated from Colorado State University’s College of Agricultural Sciences in 2018. “We didn’t know if he’d come back to the farm or not,” Arnusch says. 

But Brett did come back to the farm, and as the chief technology officer implemented soil moisture probes and drone imaging. He also helped develop proprietary software to manage the farm’s operations. 

“Halfway through college, he discovered there was a whole new environment in production agriculture on the tech side,” Marc Says. 

Brett has implemented precision technology in the farm’s irrigation system while integrating a wide range of data on planting schedules, weather and crop protection into the farm’s decision-making process. 

“He’s really helped us find next-level efficiencies,” Marc says. “We’re just making decisions quicker, and decisions are made easier.” 

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One example: Soil moisture probes revealed some hail-stricken crops were not going to survive in summer 2018, so the farm turned off the spigots and other inputs. “We knew the crop was giving it up, and that saved us a significant amount of investment that ordinarily we would have put into the crop,” Marc says. 

Marc says he likes to be a smart adopter instead of an early one, but notes that the farm—and agriculture as a whole—is often on the cutting edge. “We’ve had autonomous, self-driving tractors since the early 2000s,” he notes. “Adopting the right technology on our farm has rewarded us so far.” 

The operation is currently beta-testing a sensor-driven irrigation system to more efficiently water the crops. “It’s basically looking inside the plant we can’t get inside of as farmers and agronomists.” 

“Without question, I would say technology has reduced our dependence on labor, and we’re coming up with better quality,” Marc says. “We have to continue to adopt these technologies to survive, evolve and innovate.”

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He adds, “Sustainability starts with having a profit, because if we can’t meet our obligations to others, we’re not going to be here.” 

Arnusch Farms is not unique. “Agriculture’s always been technologically sophisticated, it just doesn’t look like it to the outside observer,” says Gregory Graff, who has been researching the rise in investment in agtech at Colorado State University for nearly a decade. “People see lots of mud and broken-down equipment and stuff like that.” 

Annual worldwide investment in agtech was hovering around $200 million until it took off starting in 2007 and exploded when Monsanto bought weather modeling startup The Climate Corp. in 2013 for about $1 billion. 

“Suddenly, cha-ching!” says Graff, a professor in CSU’s Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics. “Venture capital more or less drank the Kool-Aid, whatever analogy you want, but they really bought the storyline that agriculture was an undiscovered behemoth of an industry ripe for disruption technologically.” 

While noting there was “a bit of hubris” in the investment community’s mindset, Graff points to AgFunder’s 2022 report as a sign of the times: It pegged foodtech and agtech investments at $52 billion worldwide in 2021, up a whopping 86% over 2020. Agtech is about a third of that, give or take.  

The numbers depend, of course, on what you count: Most agtech can be categorized as biotech, chemistry, software or mechanics, but some analysts lump in B2C platforms and other food-centric models. “It’s so diffuse, nobody understands how big it is,” Graff says. “And the venture capital investment has absolutely surged since that 2013 shot over the bow. These last 10 years have seen a runup of enormous scale.” 

How has all of this investment affected farmers and ranchers? “It’s given them password anxiety,” laughs Graff.  

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Passwords aside, he adds, “I think what you’ve seen the farmers doing is adopting piecemeal and pretty conservatively relative to what the tech optimists would have liked—or even would want you to believe, especially if you’re a VC investor thinking about putting money into them.” 

Regardless, Colorado is at the forefront, with an agtech cluster that’s gaining international attention. Startup Genome ranked Denver-Boulder fifth in the world for its agtech and food startup ecosystem in its 2022 report on the sector. “I can say confidently we’re one of the leading hubs in the country,” notes Graff, who tracks 110 active agtech companies in the state. “Silicon Valley always wins, no matter what, but they’re winning by less and less lately.” 

Saving labor with wireless cameras 

And many of Colorado’s ag-focused startups are gaining traction. Take Barn Owl Tech in Colorado Springs. Founder and CEO Josh Phifer was raised on livestock ranches in Wyoming and Nebraska. “I grew up with the problems of having assets spread out over dozens if not hundreds of square miles,” he says. 

After Phifer served in the U.S. Air Force, he saw the possibility of using wireless cameras on farms and ranches during his military experience and launched Barn Owl in 2016. 

“At a large farm or ranch, they spend about 30% of their labor literally just checking on things, driving around and checking on things,” Phifer says. “If you have a fully deployed set of cameras, you can cut that down by more than half, so you’re saving 15 to 20 percent of your overall labor. If you grew up in ranching, you know there’s always more work to do, so it’s not that we’re replacing labor, we’re just giving the time back to do more effective and
efficient things.”  

Revenue has been increasing at an annual clip of 250% in recent years, Phifer says, with about 60% of sales going to agricultural customers.  

“Farming has become very technology-dependent, everything from automated tractors to GPS-guided fertilizing and planting,” Phifer says. “The livestock side tends to be a little more old-school. Just by the nature of raising young animals, it has to be a more hands-on operation.”

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Not that livestock operations don’t have increasingly innovative options: Australia-based AgriWebb, offering livestock ranchers a cloud-based platform to manage their operations, chose Denver over Austin, Dallas and Salt Lake City for its North American headquarters in 2020. 

Denver “is the confluence of all of the things we were looking for,” says AgriWebb CEO Kevin Baum. “It’s got a great, thriving and growing technology scene, it is a regional headquarters for so many ag businesses and partners, it is geographically near where our market is in the middle of the country, it has a hub airport, and it’s a great place to live. It ticked all of our boxes, and it wasn’t much of a competition.”

Baum says livestock ranching has historically been “largely run by anecdote, which is a theme we’ve found all around the world. Most farms are managed on pen and paper.” 

AgriWebb has gained traction since launching the platform in Australia in late 2015. “There was rapid adoption,” Baum says. “We’ve got about 12,000 users today. Right now, we’ve got about 17.5 million animals on the platform, which is eight times our closest competitor.” 

The first employee in Denver, Coby Buck is a fifth-generation rancher. His family’s Wray Ranch in northeastern Colorado became an AgriWebb user soon after he joined the company, and it immediately paid dividends. 

“They realized they were overfeeding their cattle in winter,” Baum says. “It was just bang! $80,000 in annual savings.” 

That sort of anecdote has been part of the industry for millennia. “Agriculture has been developing technology since the beginning. It’s the original technology. That’s how you keep up,” he says. 

“The next wave of that is digital adoption. Data is a tool. It is not a replacement. You still need that farmer, you still need that expertise, you need someone who knows what to do with the data.” 

 

Denver-based writer Eric Peterson is the author of Frommer’s Colorado, Frommer’s Montana & Wyoming, Frommer’s Yellowstone & Grand Teton National Parks and the Ramble series of guidebooks, featuring first-person travelogues covering everything from atomic landmarks in New Mexico to celebrity gone wrong in Hollywood. Peterson has also recently written about backpacking in Yosemite, cross-country skiing in Yellowstone and downhill skiing in Colorado for such publications as Denver’s Westword and The New York Daily News. He can be reached at [email protected]