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THE LAST RANCH by Sam Bingham

THE LAST RANCH

A Colorado Community and the Coming Desert

By Sam Bingham

Pub Date: Sept. 30th, 1996
ISBN: 0-679-42283-8
Publisher: Pantheon

 An unsettling report on the decline of agriculture in the dry margins of the American West. The men and women who populate environmental consultant and journalist Bingham's book dwell in the high desert of southern Colorado. It's not good land: The soil is coarse, sandy, hostile to cultivation. Heavily ranched since the 1840s, it is now all but denuded of native vegetation. Bingham writes, ``Artesian wells that once shot 20 feet in the air now required pumping. Chico brush grew where old-timers once grew hay, and here and there bare alkali ground outcropped as hard as cement.'' Industrialized agriculture has made a stand against the ever-encroaching desert: A massive concentration of center-pivot sprinklers--irrigating thousands of quarter-mile circles of potatoes, carrots, lettuce, alfalfa, and malting barley--pump enough water from ever-dwindling sources to bring profit for yet another season. Overgrazing and exotic agriculture have ruined the land, marginal to begin with, and Bingham comments that the condition of the San Luis Valley is now scarcely different from that of drought-stricken Africa. The African drylands, now a theater of famine, make news where ours do not because, he posits, American media coverage of purely agricultural issues is so poor and because other sources of income- -the occasional oil royalties, light industry, various kinds of federal welfare, and always the beckoning cities just over the horizon--keep the people of San Luis from starving. Knowing that theirs is very likely a lost cause, the people of the San Luis Valley, whom Bingham treats with courtesy and generosity, keep struggling to produce food in a hostile environment, attaining a kind of nobility as they do. Bingham's is a rare and beautifully written account of hard lives in hard times, and must reading for those interested in the future of the American West. (Author tour)