Water In His Veins

A fourth-generation farmer comes back home with family and hopes in tow.

By Des Keller | Photos By Des Keller

McClave, Colorado, isn’t much more than a crossroads of 100 people on the arid, open High Plains in the southeast part of the state. This is the region where Rex Reyher grew up, where his great-grandfather built the town’s original brick bank, and where his grandfather and father each sold land to the school district for athletic fields.

To say the Reyhers are tied to this place is an understatement. But it wasn’t always a given for Rex, 37, who worked for years in Denver as a mechanic. He felt the call to come home a decade ago when his father, Roger, suffered a series of strokes.

Although he had always harbored dreams of farming, Rex worried there wasn’t enough farm to support two families. The decision to move back to McClave was a leap of faith. “If it was ever going to happen, that moment was the time,” Rex says.

Buying Into The Community

In 2008, Rex became his father’s hired hand, gradually assuming management of the operation. In the years since, he’s more than doubled its size, to 4,700 acres. In 2016 alone, he added 2,800 acres rented from the investment group, Arkansas River Farms. Of the total acres they farm, they own 283 acres—the home place on the edge of McClave—which they purchased just last year.

Part of the reason Rex and wife, Kristin, had the ability to buy the land was that they sold 9 acres to the school district. Second, the Reyhers placed the remaining 274 acres in a conservation easement that dictates the property can only be used for agriculture. The holder of the easement, Southeast Arkansas River Conservancy District, paid the Reyhers now for giving up future development rights.

“The goal is to keep that farm as a farm into the future,” Rex says. “We’re on the fourth generation in this area.” The Reyhers raise corn, alfalfa, wheat, sunflowers and several varieties of sorghum—as well as a healthy crop of four girls, ages 2 to 11.

Water Is The Key

The area in which the Reyhers farm only receives an average of about 12 inches of precipitation annually. As a result, 100% of their farmland is irrigated. There are a number of center-pivot irrigation systems in the area, but most irrigation occurs through a more-than-century-old system of canals and ditches that siphon water from the Arkansas River.

As a farmland owner, Rex is a shareholder in the Fort Lyon Canal Co., which manages how much water can be taken, as well as when and where it can be used in this part of the Arkansas River Valley. In all, Fort Lyon manages water use on some 93,000 acres.

Water rights are attached to specific acreages. For instance, the land the Reyhers bought from Rex’s father comes with 368 “shares” of the canal company. Those shares allow Rex—using a specific formula—to receive nearly 22 acre-feet of water during one “run” of irrigation water. An acre-foot is the amount of water it takes to cover an acre with 12 inches of water.

Rex could get up to 20 runs per field during the growing season. However, access to the water doesn’t always occur on a schedule of the user’s choosing. The canal company might inform you that your allotment over a 48-hour period begins on a specific day at 6 a.m.

“You have to manage the diversion of the water during that 48 hours,” says Rex. “When one portion of a field, or set, has gotten water, you have to divert the water to the next portion. And if the time to divert occurs at 2 a.m., you have to be there at 2 a.m.”

The Prospect Of A New Market

Though farmland here generally comes tied to shares representing water rights, the two can be separated. In recent years, large investment companies have purchased land with the idea they will sell the attached canal company shares to growing cities to the west that need water. The land, then without irrigation, is often used as pastureland.

That practice—or even the prospect of it happening—is feared and resisted in places like Bent County, where the Reyher family lives. Area residents originally feared the intentions of Arkansas River Farms, now the Reyhers’ largest landlord.

Fortunately, Arkansas River Farms is trying to entice a large dairy farm (5,000-plus head) to set up operations on land Rex is now renting. He wouldn’t mind losing it, as a dairy that size would not only provide jobs, but the opportunity for area farms to have access to another market for their corn and hay.

Priorities In Order

There are moments, however, when those issues are on the back burner. Take, for example, when the Reyhers were recently getting ready for the annual Bent County Fair. Rex and Kristin were loading up the girls and two goats for a two-day trip to Las Animas, the county seat.

Rex was helping 11-year-old Savana nudge her spirited animal, Twist, a Boer cross, into the trailer. Dawsun, 7, Paisley, 5, and 2-year-old Autumn were helping coax a second goat, Nellie, to follow Twist.

Recalling the move to McClave, Kristin is the first to admit that, as a city girl who had only lived in Phoenix and Denver, Bent County, population 5,800, was a big adjustment, and still is at times. Once they arrived, though, people went out of their way to include her in events and get-togethers. “It was neat; I got to experience small-town life as a resident,” she says.

Here in McClave, doors have been opened and friends made, even additional Reyher daughters were born. “In the atmosphere of a small school, I see my kids get more involved in things like the fair, and I think this is so much more beneficial for them.”

Oh, and speaking of the fair, Twist was named reserve grand champion out of a field of more than 60 animals. Congratulations are in order.