National uncertainty, community hope, and pruning

By Harrison Topp, Topp Fruit

All winter I’ve been going to conferences, having potlucks, and generally reveling in the amazing farmer community we have here in Colorado. But now it’s time to start farming, which means the fun is over. Okay, that’s not true, but the rolling of the season brings us into a new cycle of long hours and hard work. Just as the buds are beginning to swell, so are the knots in my lower back and shoulders. Hello, spring.

Actually, this is the time of the year when I can’t contain my excitement for the growing season. Winter is a time of reflection and education. As a community organizer, I’ve been living my life one meeting at a time. We’ve been having great discussions about soil health and climate-smart agriculture with a broad spectrum of producers. Big operations and small ones are taking these conversations seriously and adopting practices that conserve water, build soil, and protect our environment. Most of my role models right now come from the world of traditional ag, which I think is a strong indicator of a more progressive attitude throughout agriculture. It makes me proud to be part of this industry and part of the system that sustains the people of this planet. (more…)

My climate change plan: foster community

Casey distributes CSA shares.

By Casey Holland, Red Tractor Farm

Last season was different. A noticeable shift. And based on what I’ve heard from other farmers, they’ve noticed it too. A term that describes what’s happening is on our tongues: climate change. It is impacting our plans for next season as well as our outlook for the future. My plans will be based on which crops I’ve seen do the best last season with an awareness of what will build towards greater overall sustainability for the farm.

Casey and Fawn

All the beans but the Dragon’s Tongue did awful last year, so this year I’ll definitely grow the Dragon’s Tongue again as well as a solid green bean like the Provider and a new variety that hails from my region—perhaps a tepary bean. These beans are accustomed to dry heat and very little water, so with an eye toward the future, it would be wise for me to start learning how to grow them. Of course, even though I have hesitations, I’ll continue to grow tomatoes. But I won’t be growing all of the same types. With the heat and drought we have been experiencing, there are definitely varieties that simply won’t work. Instead we’ll try to find tomato varieties that grow in other desert regions and see how they do here. This is the same principal behind our own seed saving—farmers in other desert regions have bred similar desirable traits into their fruit, and hopefully that will give us a leg up. (more…)

Farming is an art of adaptation

Tyler and Kendra on a warm day last summer. Photo by Eva Verbeeck

By Tyler Hoyt, Green Table Farm

On the whole, I would consider this past year a success. We expanded our market reach tremendously, turned a little bit of a profit overall, made it through our on-farm wedding, and had fun pretty much the entire time. We are looking forward to another productive and fruitful season in 2017.

Currently we are having one of the best winters on record as far as water is concerned. Our overall snowpack in the Mancos area has been hovering between 150-200 percent of average all winter, which has been a true blessing. The tremendous amount of moisture has made for some excellent skiing at higher elevations, and we anticipate full reservoirs this summer.

Yet, all of this water has also come with challenges. This has been one of the warmest winters on the books for our area, which means that most of our precipitation has come as rain instead of snow. That means endless “mud season.” In a typical winter, we would not be able to see the ground until late March, and we would be making endless ski-skin laps on our hill in the back forty. Not this year. We have had multiple rain events, even in the high country, which is antithetical to the definition of our continental snowpack. We’ve been doing lots of trench digging for water diversion and less on-farm skiing this winter.

Farming is an art of constant adaptation. Farmers have to continually adapt and evolve with changing environmental conditions, markets, consumer demands, rules and regulations. This will be our focus in the upcoming season. We will be changing the directional layout of our gardens (from predominantly north-south rows to east-west) in order to better harvest sunlight, as well as to allow for better drainage. We are slightly modifying the crops at our market stand to follow consumer demand and capitalize on niche products: more snap and snow peas, eggs, greens, onions, and cucumbers, and fewer tomatoes, peppers, and corn. Our property is just too cold to produce some crops well, so we will focus on what grows best. We will also be redesigning our drip system to create more sustained pressure and to better harness our limited amount of water and more efficiently water our crops.

The event space after a winter snow.

We will also be delving into the world of agritourism. Our wedding this summer was a test run for our new event center. We always believed that weddings were a giant waste of money, so we invested most of our wedding funds into our future by building a beautiful space for people to celebrate their own special events in a farm setting. I had a great conversation with a brilliant farmer friend a while back about how we (as farmers) can sell not only an agricultural product but also an aesthetic and a lifestyle. From the market stand to the fields, people are yearning for experiences outside of the city and outside of their comfort zone—dirt and farm smells included. We are keen to heed that call.

In order to adapt, we focus on diversification at Green Table Farm. Diversity in crops, practices, and growing zones on the farm enables us to maximize our space and take advantage of environmental factors. Aside from diversification, we are continually honing our snow dance because water is what really keeps our world turning.

 

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About this series: This year, four young farmers/ranchers from Colorado and New Mexico have been blogging about their experiences with water access and explaining everything from what it feels like to clean a 400-year-old acequia to how they’ve learned to make the most of the water they have through conservation and crop selection. To help you understand the terminology around water access, we’ve put together a short glossary at the bottom of this blog post.

To save water, first save soil and heirloom plants

By Tyler Hoyt, Green Table Farm

In August we had our first big monsoon of the summer, which was a blessing because we had not seen any precipitation for nearly a month. Our first few storms of the monsoon season in the Southwest can be incredibly violent, quick moving, and drop lots of water on the sunbaked soil. During this first storm, we received just under 1.5 inches of water in about an hour, which is a perfect recipe for erosion, flash flooding, and general water deluge.

When I went outside to survey our property after the storm, I noticed quite a bit of erosion around drainpipes, along roadways, and at the high mark on our creek, but the soil in our fields looked great. There was hardly any runoff. For three seasons now we have been adding compost and other high-carbon materials (leaves, wood chips, straw) to our soil as well as rotating our animals, cover cropping, and mulching. The benefits of adding organic matter can be seen, smelled, and probably even tasted, if you wanted to go that far.

Since increasing a field’s organic matter increases its water carrying capacity, incorporating more organic matter will be beneficial for our irrigation practices. The more our soils can bank water during these heavy precipitation events, the less we will have to irrigate later when things dry out. We can lose about 1/4-inch of water from our soil every day that the sun shines, which is why the less water we have running off our fields, the better. (more…)

I need more information: Balancing rain and irrigation

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By Casey Holland, Red Tractor Farm

The monsoons finally arrived in August. They were more than a month later than usual, but I am grateful for them all the same. It was apparent that everything growing in our fields was equally grateful for the reprieve from the oppressive summer heat. For the first time in almost two months, the temperature was consistently under 100 degrees for longer than a week. All of our crops were much greener and had a certain vibrancy they lacked back when they were just fighting to stay alive. The outdoor tomatoes finally set fruit and rapidly increased in height. The sweet potatoes grew lush and quintupled in size.

Unfortunately, the weeds loved the rain, too, and grew at an even faster pace. There were more insects buzzing about, there was an unfamiliar humidity in the air, and the farm had a beautiful tranquility in the early morning before the rest of the city had woken up. Even though a main city road is just a few dozen feet away from our okra patch, standing there made me feel like I was transported back to a time before automobiles. The full bounty of the season had finally arrived.

holland_harvesting_croppedThe rain always throws an interesting conundrum into planning our water use on the farm. To water or not to water? Every time we get rain, it allows us to pull less from the well. But how much less well water should we use? We always go back and forth, depending on data from the weather service, about how much rain we received versus how much we can expect to receive in the coming days. Sometimes a rain is deep and soaks in enough that it can get us through a few days without needing supplementary irrigation. Other rains just sprinkle the fields and only make the plants thirsty for more.

Based on the research I have been doing, most of our vegetable crops demand about two inches of water a week in order to survive. If it’s windy or extremely hot, like it tends to be out here in New Mexico, that amount can increase to almost three inches. But how many inches did we actually get in that last rainstorm? How many inches of water per hour does our drip line deliver to the crops? (more…)

Managing water: a new farmer and a very old acequia

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A conversation with Nery Martinez, Santa Cruz Farm & Greenhouses

Nery Martinez, who is originally from Guatemala, has been farming with his uncle, Don Bustos, at Santa Cruz Farm & Greenhouses in Española, New Mexico for more than five years. Nery is one of four young farmers/ranchers from Colorado and New Mexico who are blogging for NYFC about their experiences with water access. You can read Nery’s first post here.

How does irrigation water reach your farm?
Here in New Mexico we have a system of ditches or channels called an acequias. It’s a system—a really, really old system—that allows people to get irrigation water on their land. Don’s family has been farming here for over 400 years, and the acequias were already here when they started. Acequias don’t run in a straight line, they go through towns and communities. It’s like a little river. Our acequia is made of dirt, but there are some places that have a little bit of concrete because the dirt isn’t strong enough to retain the water.

Acequias are unique—you share water?
Yes. We share water. There is a community. It’s pretty cool. That’s how people stay connected, through their acequias. When there is enough water, I don’t hear about people fighting over water. But when there is limited water, a neighbor might tell you if you use too much water or ask you to share more.

Where is your water coming from?
Our water comes form the Santa Cruz River here in Española. It’s probably less than 10 miles away. But the river water starts out as snow in the mountains, and it goes into a reservoir before flowing into the river and then into our acequia. (more…)

Farm disasters wait for no man … or wedding

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By Tyler Hoyt, Green Table Farm

As I sit down to finally write this blog entry, I must confess that it is at least a couple weeks late, but for good reason! Late last month, Kendra and I tied the knot in front of about 200 people who gathered on our farm from all over the country. We fed them food we raised ourselves and entertained them in our new barn, complete with a bar and stage.

A word to aspiring or current farmers (who likely already know this): Do NOT host large events like this during your busy season! Just don’t. Needless to say the last couple of months have been eaten up with wedding preparation and building projects, leaving me very little time to think about big-picture problems with water in the Western U.S, let alone my own garden.

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The only water problems that I could think about were those that needed to be addressed in order to keep my farm from falling apart during the multi-week madness of the wedding. And there were plenty  of problems. One of my newest family members drove over an irrigation riser on accident, which destroyed it. On top of that, the baby goats were very poorly behaved in their pasture, which led to them to escape and treat an outflow valve like a jungle gym, destroying that as well. In the middle of the wedding milieu, these problems were very low on my list of concerns, but they had to be dealt with in order to keep the farm functioning. (more…)

When the heat doesn’t stop: adapting to climate change

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By Casey Holland, Red Tractor Farm

Heat. Some of the most intense heat you’ve ever felt. 100 degrees and climbing; sweat dripping out of every pore. In mid-July, I looked at the weather report and realized it would be 100+ all week. The heat had already lasted a month The fields didn’t look much better than the heat felt. The plants were clearly stressed despite all the water they were getting. Nothing does well in that kind of heat.

It is moments like these that I remember that I’m farming in the middle of a desert; that many of these blooms are unnatural and this green unsustainable. Last year was the warmest year on record; this year looks like it’s going to be even warmer. And this year we don’t even have El Nino to depend on.

By July, I am facing so many struggles due to the heat that I am just trying to make the best of it and ride it out. This season has been so intense that I am already spending a lot of time thinking through what I plan to do differently next year. What crops are doing best in this severe heat? Which pests have become even worse as this heat is beating down on us? The brutal reality of living in a desert during one of the biggest shifts in our global climate, is one of the biggest barriers facing the farm.

Tomatoes at Red Tractor Farm. This photo and the portrait of Casey were taken by Eva Verbeeck.

Tomatoes at Red Tractor Farm. This photo and the portrait of Casey were taken by Eva Verbeeck.

It’s a reality that is difficult to face, but year after year, as the heat becomes more intense and the rain becomes more scarce, I have to come to terms with what this new reality truly means for the farm’s future. All of us, myself included, enjoy a rather luxurious bounty that is not at all in line with what our local environment is suited for. Tomatoes are a tropical fruit, for instance, and definitely not at all adapted to the arid region I find myself struggling to grow them in, season after season. For now, it is worth it. We have the water. A question that haunts me though is – when will it cease to be worth it, and what will I do when it isn’t? What will that mean for those of us who have grown accustomed to the bountiful, year-round availability of every type of food that the global food system has created? How will we survive? (more…)

Balancing work with work: On day jobs and land hunts

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By Stacia Cannon, Topp Fruit

The juvenile plums were a pale, unappetizing green. Then, almost overnight, the trees were adorned with rich purple, speckled fruit. Naked and new, the plums continue to swell and gain even darker, more brilliant hews. In the orchard and elsewhere it has been a very fruitful year, replete with many successes, but also persistent, grinding challenges.

Balancing an off-farm job with the often unpredictable needs of the orchard is a constant battle. When I’m not ranching I work for a vet, and Harrison works full time for the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union. Harrison has the freedom to work remotely, so most days he drives to his “office” at the orchard, a small makeshift desk and a folding chair on the east side of the barn. With internet access and cell phone reception, Harry has everything he needs, plus a killer view of the orchard overlooking Paonia. Still, our home on the ranch is an hour-and-half away—an already long day is made much more taxing when you add a three hour commute on top of it.

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NYFC’s Western water program director, Kate Greenberg, makes use of Harrison’s “office” at the orchard during a visit last summer. Harrison is picking fruit in the background.

Since the orchard is so far from our home, my ability to help out with maintenance is limited to my days off from working at the vet hospital and the ranch, which makes it really hard for us to get some of the less-essential but still-important jobs completed, such as mowing. When we have a million other things that need to get done at the orchard, mowing doesn’t always make the cut. It isn’t essential and we like the wild and beautiful look of the grasses, but when harvest time comes, the foliage is impossible to navigate with a ten-foot ladder and harvest basket. Living closer to the orchard might enable us to get some of these tasks completed, so we’ve started looking for more land that can be our home place and also help us expand our farming ventures. We’re starting the process with a mixture of caution and rollicking enthusiasm bordering on mania. (more…)

Finding land (with water) isn’t easy

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By Tyler Hoyt, Green Table Farm

No matter where they live, one of the biggest barriers that young farmers face is access to good quality land. In the West, good land for agriculture is usually tied to good water rights, which is a big factor in the price of land. When we started our search for a piece of land that we could call our own, we stuck to one of the emerging organic produce economic models: we needed to be close enough to a well-to-do city in order to fetch a good price on our products, but far enough away that we could afford land.

We looked at properties in the Animas Valley for about a week before realizing that we were kidding ourselves even thinking about affording land that close to Durango (the well-to-do city). In the Animas Valley there are plenty of beautiful acres and one of the last free-flowing rivers, but encroaching development and numerous media accolades from the likes of Outdoor, Forbes, and National Geographic have made that land out of reach for beginning farmers. We refocused our search on the Mancos Valley, which is largely undeveloped thanks to being a 30-minute drive from Durango over two minor mountain passes and one county line. The piece of land that we settled on would never have been within our reach in the Animas Valley.

Even after we found a piece of land that was within our price range, getting a mortgage on 72 acres proved to be very difficult. No conventional bank or credit union would touch that much land, and the USDA programs that loan money to beginning farmers are slow and cumbersome. After going to almost every lender in town, we finally found a bank that actually read our business proposal and had recently decided to go after more “sustainable or green investments.” We were a good fit for this new chapter in their portfolio, and they kept our loan in-house instead of trading it in the open market like most mortgages (think financial meltdown in 2008), which we really liked. We knew what we wanted and we plugged away until we got it, but we had to be incredibly determined and flexible to put all of the pieces together.Hoyt_HopiBeans_cropped

I personally believe that getting more willing hands onto rural land to produce local food on a small scale should be an aim for this country. Revitalizing rural communities could help to manage parcels of land better, keep open spaces from being developed, bring back rural economies, and provide more access to good quality food.
There are plenty of willing, young farmers, but unless they have the ability to own the land they work, their desire to make longterm improvements to the land diminishes. We need more land ownership—not just land tenancy—but their are immense barriers to ownership and incredible responsibilities after the dotted line is signed.

I have long been an advocate for contemporary agrarianism and some form of a New Homestead Act, which could use the populist movement in this country to repopulate rural areas and make farming an easier investment for young and beginning farmers. I was discussing this topic with a friend the other day who is currently looking to buy land and running into all of the same problems that we did. When I brought this idea up, he agreed with me, but then immediately asked how people would qualify for such a radical land grant.

The first Homestead Act put a lot of people on land for the first time, but it also led to the displacement of millions of native peoples, widespread land speculation, price manipulation, commercial and industrial development, and events like the Oklahoma Land Rush and the dust bowl.

Should anyone with a pipedream of farming be given almost-free land to do with as they please? I think definitely not, yet there should be an easier and cheaper way to get young people back onto good quality rural acreage. Whether it comes from government agencies, land link programs like these, or through word of mouth, young people are already being encouraged to take on land responsibly, but I can’t help but hope for something a little more progressive and radical to help expedite the process.

Editor’s note: For information on NYFC’s approach to helping young farmers find affordable farmland, visit our land access campaign page