Jim Shaw fights to keep rural lifestyle as city growth surrounds his farm

Sunday, April 21, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 7:47 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, April 24, 2013
Jim Shaw has lived on a farm just north of Columbia since he was born, raising cattle on more than 140 acres. He's working to preserve his land from encroaching development.

COLUMBIA — Cattle farmer Jim Shaw has felt the squeeze of development around his property for more than four decades.

He's feeling it now.

Late last year, the Boone County Regional Sewer District used eminent domain to acquire just under 20 acres of his land to use for a water treatment plant.

That acquisition was among the most recent developments to change the contour of his property, as subdivisions and construction projects bear down on the outskirts of Columbia.

"They tried to tell me, 'your land will be worth so much more for development,' but at 60, I think I've pretty well established that my interest is not in development," he said.

Shaw is determined to maintain a rural lifestyle on the family farm he has worked for a lifetime to preserve. He has lived on the place just north of Columbia since he was born, raising cattle on more than 140 acres.

"I'm doing what I think is the most valuable thing when you live on the land, and the community tends to look at me as being in the way of development," he said.

For the past several weeks, he and his son have been building a fence on the border of the new sewer district property to contain the livestock. At this time of year, he really should be getting his calves ready to go to market.

"We just haven’t gotten around to doing that," he said. "Every day that’s been nice, we've been trying to deal with that fence issue."

Shaw stands in his machine shed, the dull colors of old equipment filling the space around him. Rain pounds on the white metal roof, and the sounds of NPR crackle on the radio in the background.

Across his gravel drive on Highway VV, an old wooden barn stands in front of the hills where his livestock graze. The sheet metal on the roof has begun to peel away, and flecks of red paint are still visible in the crevices of the walls. Old tractors and trucks line the drive.

"I guess we just have held on too long, but this is our home," he said.

His parents purchased the land — a badly eroded, abused plot — before he was born, caring for the property and bringing it back to life. He's tried to maintain it, even planning his route through the pasture to minimize damage to the soil and vegetation.

"When your whole existence has been focused on taking care of a piece of property, and you enjoy it, why would I want to give it up?" he said.

He can't quite remember when the first subdivision appeared along the south side of his farm but figures it at more than 40 years ago. A sewage treatment plant followed shortly thereafter. The runoff and sewer outflow from the development caused erosion across the property.

The following years brought a power line and several utility lines to the edges of the farm, and he often found himself repairing fences or working around the projects.

"Once those things are installed, then there's always hassles that you have to deal with, and it’s an ongoing ordeal for us to cope with those incursions," he said. 

Before the economic recession hit, Shaw received several offers to buy his land, but he turned them all down. The thought of giving it up was too much.

"It's really hard for me to think about giving up everything I've done and trying to start over somewhere, and for me, it would be starting over,” he said.

"We could have presumably sold this for enough money to go buy a much larger place in really nice shape, but I wouldn't have had a hand in making it." 

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