When Denver media personality Steffan Tubbs went looking for his next big story, he found it in southeastern Colorado, amid “a treasure trove of people” too often ignored and underappreciated but also refreshingly “real.”

When Denver media personality Steffan Tubbs went looking for his next big story, he found it in southeastern Colorado, amid “a treasure trove of people” too often ignored and underappreciated but also refreshingly “real.”

Farmers and ranchers attending the cattle industry summer convention in Denver got to see clips from his new film, "Droughtland," scheduled for release this fall, that will focus on the drought’s impact. The film will feature agricultural leaders who are well known in southeastern Colorado, including farm wife Linda Yoder of Karval and John Campbell, longtime general manager of Winter Livestock Inc. at La Junta.

During his presentation, Stubbs called attention to the exceptional drought in California, which now covers more than half of that state, as well as to the plight of 10 counties in southern Colorado recently awarded a federal drought designation, making them eligible for government assistance.

“We proudly eat beef within my home,” he said. “My kids have learned, every night when we say our evening prayers, we thank the farmers and ranchers.”

Patti Buck, president of the American National CattleWomen Inc. and a rancher from the drought-stricken Ignacio area, was eager to meet Tubbs and share her own experiences.

“We’ve had to liquidate 70 percent of our stock,” she said. “I know a lot of the people he talked to, because we ship our cattle over there.”

By his own admission, Stubbs is modeling his film on "Farmland," a largely sympathetic portrayal of modern agriculture that has been shown to numerous audiences around the country with financial backing from leading farm organizations like the American Farm Bureau and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. Buck had just seen it for the first time while representing the cattlewomen’s leadership organization during the summer convention of the Nebraska Cattlemen’s Association.

“It was just wonderful,” she said of the film.

She said she was heartened to see films emerging that tell farmers’ stories with respect for their unique perspective, which she said is a service to an industry that otherwise struggles to have its voice heard.

“We’re farmers, not actors,” she said.

Robert Patterson, a rancher from Kim, was also enthusiastic about Tubbs’ film project.

“I think people need to know what we went through,” he said.

The 1950s still stand out in his mind as being worse than the 30s and worse than the current drought, at least so far. He said drought conditions in his area had eased over the summer.

“The old-timers say, ‘Stick with the land and it will stick with you,’” he reflected. “I can remember in 1955 or 1956 when the drought broke. We have cycles. We could be coming to the end of this one.”

But as the film chronicles, recovering from a drought takes years and leaves scars.

“Some people are holding back heifers, but not a lot,” Patterson said. “I’ve seen feedlots that are empty, but that’s probably by choice.”

Susie Magnuson, a past president of the Colorado CattleWomen Inc. from Eaton, said she found it hard to watch public portrayals of agriculture’s worst hard times. “It’s kind of like if you were involved in a very bad car crash,” she said. “You probably wouldn’t want to be watching it again.”

Both she and Patterson mentioned the movie "Eight Seconds," which tells the tragic story of Colorado-born bull rider Lane Frost. He was gored and killed by a bull 25 years ago at age 25 while competing at Cheyenne Frontier Days.
“My son saw it happen,” Patterson said.

Another example cited by Magnuson is "Country," the 1984 film starring Jessica Lange that depicts the farm crisis of the 1980s. “We had friends who lived it,” she said.

Even so, elevating a farmer’s tragedy to a level where it is recognizable to a disengaged public is important, said Carolyn Carey, who was attending the cattle industry convention from her ranch near Alturas, California. Her Napa Valley ranch is north of where the worst of the California drought is centered, but she said conditions there are continuing to worsen.

She said Tubbs seemed to be “on the right track” but worried his film wouldn’t go far enough to put the farmers’ plight in perspective with an increasingly urban society.

“There has to be more to it,” she said. “We don’t have any unemployment benefits. It needs to jog somebody someplace to realize how we as a society used to be responsible for providing for our families.”

Showing a farm auction seemed to her to be one of the most effective ways to drive the point home that farming is more than a job.

“What does it mean to be two or three generations removed from the farm?” she asked. “The mindset has changed.”

All agreed one highlight of the film would likely be its description of ranchers forced to sell herds they had been carefully honing for decades. The ranchers talked about developing a sentimental attachment to their animals that was hard to break. Patterson mentioned how companionable otherwise stoic ranchers could become with their “spotter cow,” the one with a unique marking that draws the eye during every pasture check.

“It’s kind of been a round robin here, and we’re not back to where we can handle a lot of those cattle again yet,” Patterson said. “A lot of people got out and aren’t going to get back in.”

Tubbs told convention-goers he is working to raise $75,000 to complete the film and joked that John Deere would make a great corporate sponsor. This will be his second full-length documentary. His first, called "Life, Liberty and Resilience," featured the reflections of Joseph LaNier, an African-American World War II veteran in Denver who became the first black soldier to return to Iwo Jima and his recounting of eight decades spent overcoming discrimination with faith, pluck and patriotism.

Tubbs, who is a morning radio host for Colorado’s KOA, also published a well-received book by the same title.