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…)

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…)

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

I can see my watershed, I can ski my watershed

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By Tyler Hoyt, Green Table Farm

When I began thinking about this blog post, it made me want to check inat the source of our water. Three miles of highway and another 15 of variable dirt roads, and my brother and I were within striking distance of patches of snow clinging to windloaded north faces. A little ski boots-on-talus action and we were making some legit ski turns. The grins on our faces at the bottom of this thin patch of snow (it was mid-June after all) are the reason I first came to Southwest Colorado and a big part of why we chose to settle here.

One of my biggest stipulations when we were looking to purchase land was that we would not leave the mountains. I spent a disproportionate amount of my time skiing the mountains of the Western U.S., and there was no way I was going to sacrifice that way of life entirely for farming. Little did I know that my time on the slopes would give me a foundation of knowledge about watersheds that would serve me well as a farmer.

The sliver of snow where my brother and I “inspected future water availability” is situated in the La Plata Mountains, which are a microrange that drains water into the Animas, La Plata, Dolores, and Mancos Rivers. This is a tall order for a small set of peaks, but they are mighty, rising over 13,000 feet. Among the tallest (there is active debate about the highest peak in the range) is Mt. Hesperus, which is regarded by local native tribes as the Northern Holy Peak, with Mt. Blanca, Mt. Taylor, and the San Francisco Peaks rounding out the other three cardinal directions.

Every drop of rain, every snowflake or hailstone that falls on Hesperus eventually flows into the West Mancos River. Part of the water that is tied to our property comes from Jackson Lake (a reservoir), which fills off of the West Mancos River. When we realized this connection between Hesperus, our property, and the Mancos Valley in general, we were all the more sold on our place. Living close to the mountains has advantages, like being able to physically see the source of our water and look after it. It also has drawbacks for farming, such as long winters and deep snow. Theoretically, since we are close to the source we should be free of most contaminants that one would find further downstream, such as petroleum products, chemicals, and agricultural runoff, but there are still threats to water quality. This was witnessed last summer during the Gold King Mine spill into the Animas River, which is only thirty miles from Mancos. That kind of threat is a reality anywhere mining takes place, and Colorado was settled because of mining. (more…)

Meet Tyler: “We want to spend our lives devoted to a piece of land”

Hoyt_portrait_croppedWelcome to the arid West! For the next six months, four young farmers/ranchers from Colorado and New Mexico will be 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.

By Tyler Hoyt, Green Table Farm

When we found our farm, my fiancé Kendra and I knew it was the right fit for us. It had plenty of run-down pasture for grazing animals, lots of semi-flat terrain for crops, a barn and corral that were in shambles, a defunct farmhouse that was livable, and—most importantly—lots of water. When we realized how much water was tied to the property and that much of the irrigation infrastructure was already installed (although lacking much needed attention over the years), we got excited. When we found that the water comes from Mt. Hesperus (the Northern Holy Peak for local tribes), we knew that this was the spot to build our future in a dry region. It was perfect.

We had been dreaming about owning a farm for as long as we had known each other. After many years of growing food on and improving other people’s land, we finally decided to buy our own piece of heaven. We wanted long-term returns on our investments into the land, and ownership was the only way to partially guarantee this far-sighted approach.

Land ownership and actively managing and working the land is a direct way to have a positive impact on our local ecosystem by improving soil and water quality, promoting diversity, and healing a damaged landscape. Farming allows us to improve our environment while producing high quality, nutrient-dense food for ourselves and our community, which is a socio-environmental win-win. All of this also comes with a rewarding job, as well as a thoroughly enjoyable lifestyle. (more…)