The sugar beet industry helped launch Greeley’s ag industry, which is different today, but still strong
County seat debate
In the 1870s, there was a tug-of-war between Greeley and Evans to become the center of Weld County. In 1872, Evans defeated Greeley by 132 votes to become the county seat. In 1874, Greeley won by 14 before losing the Weld crown, again, to Evans in 1875. The final vote was in Greeley’s favor in 1877.
Sen. Daniel Webster didn’t buy Horace Greeley’s advice to “Go West, young man.” Webster saw the West as a wasteland.
“What do we want with this vast, worthless area,” Webster said in a Senate speech in the mid-1800s. “This region of savages and wild beasts, of deserts, of shifting sands and whirlwinds of dust, of cactus and prairie dogs? To what use could we ever hope to put these great deserts, or those endless mountain ranges, impenetrable and covered to their very base with eternal snow? What use have we for this country?”
Despite Webster’s warnings, Nathan Meeker led a new colony to the West, naming his new utopia after Horace. But the colony would not have survived and become Union Colony and then Greeley if it weren’t for agriculture.
Wheat and potatoes were big staples, but it was sugar beets in the early days of the county, along with cattle, that really brought additional jobs and work. Even though the cattle industry didn’t thrive until the 1930s after Warren Monfort established his feedlots, the herds did make a difference long before then.
Beef and sugar beets helped transform Webster’s “vast, worthless area” into a thriving colony and then, today, one of Colorado’s bigger civilized metropolises. Agriculture brought jobs, which brought people to the area, and that brought a need for housing, other businesses and more. That brought even more jobs. The circle continues. Last summer, Greeley hit the 100,000 mark, and many of the surrounding towns in Weld County have transformed themselves into small cities.
Agriculture remains a huge part of the economies of Weld and its biggest city, Greeley. Greeley is still known for its cattle industry, thanks to the Monfort family and what is now known as JBS USA’s meatpacking plant, even if our noses barely remind us of that any longer. Weld remains one of the top 10 agricultural counties in the U.S., and the only one not in California.
But that agriculture has changed, and the emphasis has shifted from a focus on farms to a more industrial business. There are definitely still farms, dairies and feedlots, but those involved in the field don’t always spend their time in rows of crops or in pastures like before.
Peggy Ford with the Greeley History Museum said agribusiness keeps Greeley’s farming roots firm, and keeps the city growing and changing with the world around us. But in many ways Greeley got its start through the same kind of agribusiness that prevails today, even if the crop that started it all lost most of its processing plants, and it doesn’t have near the status it once did.
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The “white gold” of Weld County took off in the late 1800s as plagues, hailstorms and grasshoppers started to scare farmers. Sugar beets could beat all those dangers, giving the new farmers a greater margin for error. Starting in 1893, farmers settled in the Greeley area to help the sugar beet industry take off.
“(Sugar beets) would do more to raise the standards of our agriculture more than any other one thing,” according to a book kept at the Greeley museum, “The First Hundred Years — Greeley, Colorado” by Barbara Smith.
And for a long time, sugar beets were one of the most successful crops in the area. Wheat and potatoes were important, but neither triumphed for the economy in the same, sweet way.
As sugar boomed, the first roots of agribusiness took hold: The Great Western Sugar Company took off at the turn of the 1900s, adding factories in a number of towns across northern Colorado, including Greeley, Windsor, Eaton, Fort Morgan, Longmont and Brush.
The first two opened in 1902 in Greeley and Windsor, thanks to their proximity to the railway.
Just like the group of original colonists Meeker brought to Greeley, the opportunity for work brought people — many of them immigrants — to the area.
The first group consisted of German-Russians, many of whom helped pioneer sugar beets in Greeley. But a strike by some of the workers and farmers made room for Japanese workers to work in the fields.
With World War I, many of those workers went to war, leaving a void. Great Western workers started a recruitment campaign, reaching out to a number of states and Mexico to bring workers to the fields, Gabriel Lopez of Greeley said. Lopez and his wife, Jody, are authors of “White Gold Laborers” and “From Sugar to Diamonds.” The couple’s genealogical research turned into a project, looking into the Spanish Colony, which the Great Western Sugar Company created as a result of the need for workers.
“The thing most people we’ve talked to commented on was just how hard the work was on the fields,” Lopez said.
The company added housing such as the Spanish Colony to keep workers there because there were no guarantees the migrants would return to the fields each year. Some farmers had shacks on their properties, but that option for families normally went away post-harvest. The colonies also presented a step of the American dream for workers recruited in Mexico. The housing wasn’t free, but the opportunity to own a home and work was enough incentive to relocate to the Greeley area.
Eventually, though, the available work started to dwindle for those who came to work with the sugar beets. Sugar cane and high fructose corn syrup became primary sweetening ingredients, in part because they were cheaper to produce. Sugar beets took more money and manpower.
By the 1970s, Greeley had the only operational sugar factory in Weld. The Great Western Sugar Company filed for bankruptcy in the 1980s, and Tate & Lyle bought the struggling company. The European-based group eventually sold their ownership to the Western Sugar Cooperative in 2002. Beet farmers in Colorado, Nebraska and Wyoming formed the cooperative. When Western Sugar took control, the Greeley factory turned into a storage facility. But in 2006, the company decided to sell the land and building. It took about two years before Leprino Foods bought the property, taking down the old factory to make room for a new agriculture industry to grow in Weld.
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Leprino Foods sits at 1st Avenue and 13th Street. The cheese-processing factory contributes to the cow-town reputation of Greeley — indeed, it brought many more dairy cows to Weld — but it represents the future of agriculture.
Leprino continues to grow and bring jobs and people to the area.
The decision for Leprino came down to Greeley and a town in Kansas before the cheese-producers announced they were coming here. Part of the reason was the dairy cows, both quantity and quality, in Weld.
Leprino’s decision to open a factory here opened up work for many. Of the largest private non-retail employers in Weld, Leprino was No. 15 with 320 full-time employees.
Leprino, just like the sugar beet factory before it, also opened up many other jobs.
“One of the side-effects and after-effects of Leprino’s decision to build here is a lot of dairy farms are coming to the region,” said Chad Howell, economic development director for Greeley. “So not only do we have a supply of dairy farms, but it’s becoming an attractive proposition for farmers in places like Wisconsin, New York and California. They’re actually moving dairies here.”
That’s expected to continue. According to an economic impact report by the University of Northern Colorado economics department, the soon-to-be-launched third phase of expansion for Leprino should add 120 full-time jobs.
Last summer, Greeley’s population hit the 100,000 mark. It’s not all because of the agriculture industry, but things haven’t changed much since the late 1800s: People continue to relocate to Greeley because of the jobs available. After the 2006 raids of then-Swift packing plant led to the arrest of more than 250 workers in the country illegally, refugees moved to the area to work.
Howell said the unskilled labor positions JBS had to fill as a result of the raid were attractive to the refugees.
The largest employer today? You guessed it. It remains JBS USA. Between the beef processing, corporate headquarters and trucking, the company that gives Greeley its cow-town reputation employs 4,619 people full-time.
The agribusiness is what bridges the gap between farming and the business side of agriculture in Weld. With Leprino and JBS, there is still a big dependence on crops around the area. Corn in the Weld area, largely, goes to feedlots. Chuck Sylvester farms corn on his land in LaSalle, and in the distance, you can see one of Weld’s feedlot towers.
“As they get more feedlots, and with Leprino, more dairies, (corn) silage is important product for dairy and cattle,” he said. “And with silage, you can’t afford to truck it very far, so a lot of this area is gonna be corn for silage and to supply the feedlots and dairies.”
So even as the technology and look of agriculture changes, the dependency on crops remains because of the animals in the area. As industries change, so do the crops, which the history of sugar beets in the area illustrates. And as Greeley changes and grows, it still depends on agriculture to sustain the economy.
That’s pretty good for a “vast, worthless area.” ❖
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