From droughts to contamination, our water supply is precarious

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One of my partners, Dory, flood irrigating a field at Red Tractor Farm. We have an underground pipe from the turn out that takes the flood water directly from the ditch to our fields.

By Casey Holland, Red Tractor Farm

Where does our water come from? Too few of us in the United States ask this question as we turn on our faucets and partake in a seemingly limitless supply of clean drinking water. Some communities, such as Flint, Michigan, have recently had to directly address this question as they find their water sources poisoned and toxic.

Here in Albuquerque, our water supply is quite precarious. Despite the beautiful Rio Grande flowing directly through our city’s heart, our situation is not one of plenty. We have been in a mega-drought, and March of 2016 was proclaimed to be the driest March on record. The last few months definitely have not shown an increase in precipitation.  

Here in the desert Southwest, lack of water is not the only threat we face within the Rio Grande-Albuquerque watershed. Contamination is as serious a concern as it is for the residents of Flint. Just a few years ago it was revealed that the Kirtland Airforce Base has been aware of a massive leak of jet fuel since as early as 1999. Albuquerque sits directly atop of an aquifer, leaving it particularly vulnerable to contamination.

In addition to the jet fuel, developers have come through seeking to build large housing compounds on the edges of our cities. Projects such as the proposed Santolina development would stretch our already scarce water supply even thinner. We must protect our water resources for future generations, not squander them away in a bid to make the desert bloom more than it already does. (more…)

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…)

Land access innovation at Temple Wilton Community Farm

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Lincoln Geiger and Anthony Graham, who are two of the original three founding farmers and continue to be full-time farmers leading the dairy (Lincoln) and vegetable (Anthony) operations.

By Holly Rippon-Butler, Land Access Program Director

My last post described the range of challenges farmers are facing when it comes to land access, and I suggested broad solutions, like working with a land trust and fostering community support. In this post, I want to show you how those solutions can look on the ground by telling you the story of the Temple-Wilton Community Farm Project.

Temple-Wilton Community Farm in Wilton, New Hampshire is one of the first Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farms in the United States. CSAs are more than a marketing structure, they reflect a shared vision and risk and a joining together of resources and skills to provide food for a community. Many CSA farms offer shares at a fixed price that community members can purchase at the beginning of the season, affording them access to a share of the farm’s harvest on a regular basis. At Temple-Wilton, this community effort is taken one step further by estimating their expenses, sharing their budget with their members, and asking them to pledge what they can afford.

For 20 years, Temple-Wilton has been operating on these principles of transparency and trust, as well as a strong commitment to the triple bottom line of farmer financial viability, sustainable land use, and strong local food systems that feed communities. It is no surprise that they brought all of these ideas to the table when confronting their land access needs.

The Temple-Wilton Community Farm operates on 200+ acres of land spread across a cluster of parcels in Wilton, NH. Over the past two decades, farmers Lincoln Geiger and Anthony and Glynn Graham took on personal debt to purchase parcels of farmland in the Abbot Hill area of Wilton, NH as the land came up for sale. The land then became part of the Temple-Wilton Community Farm and the farm community raised funds to help pay down debt. Additionally the farmers worked with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service and Town of Wilton to place a conservation easement on the land that protects it for farming. To achieve their goal of bringing the land into common ownership and ensuring that sustainable biodynamic agriculture will continue to take  place on the property beyond the life of any one person, the farmers partnered with the Russell Foundation to donate the land to the Yggdrasil Land Foundation. In exchange, they received a 99-year renewable lease on the land.

The farmers have built and operated their agricultural community successfully for many years. Despite all this, the 68-acre Four Corners Farm—where all of the Temple-Wilton Community Farm’s infrastructure is located—remains under a separate lease arrangement that does not provide security or equity to the farm. The landowners retain the ability to terminate the lease with little notice or cause. Given the insecurity of this arrangement and inability for the farm to build equity in this piece of land, the community has now reached a point where ownership is the security they need. (more…)

Playing caveman hydro-engineer

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By Harrison Topp, Topp Fruit

Our day started this morning at 4:30, when we met the crew to move sheep. The sheep are born in the bottomlands near Montrose, a brushy landscape that’s the gateway to the Utah desert. Around mid-May we moved them up to the irrigated fields on a nearby mesa. Today we moved them further up to a leased parcel in a scrubby, mid-elevation forest. We’ll do one final move in July, to an even higher elevation forest service permit on the far side of Telluride, CO. We’re learning that the sheep actually do much better on the mountain flora. They prefer the brushy alpine plants to the grassy pastures, and it will also help to improve the quality of the meat.

Heading into the high country is always fun. Not only is it cooler and full of life, there is often an abundance of water.
In Colorado and much of the arid west, we do something called “irrigating” which is the practice of diverting water from rivers or aquifers onto crops.

Topp_ditch noteOk, so you’re not dumb, you know what irrigation is, but it is still a surprise to a lot of people that we straight-up don’t get enough precipitation to grow most crops, so we are reliant on the water that comes out of the mountains from melting snow. So bringing sheep into the high country is a chance to get into the headwaters of all our rivers and streams and ultimately the birthplace of the Colorado River!

The ranch where Stacia works diverts water out of the Uncompahgre River via a big canal. The orchard is also fed by a big canal that comes out of Paonia Reservoir, which is fed by the North Fork of the Gunnison River. Though it may sound dull, these details have soooo much to do with being a successful farmer out here. Irrigation infrastructure and delivery, the details of the watershed, and the actual year that the diversion right was first filed are some of the most important things that a person can know about their farm or ranch.

Topp_pipe in the grassAt our orchard we divert directly out of the Fire Mountain Canal, which is managed by a ditch company cooperatively owned by all the water users. When water “turns on” in the spring (which is one of my favorite days of the year) a representative from the ditch company, called the ditch rider, will leave us a little note at our point of diversion that lets us know how much water we can take out of the canal. From there, it’s up to us to get it to the trees!

When I first started, we had a beautiful (but totally inefficient) network of hand-dug ditches that delivered water across the orchard. Stones, dirt, shovels, tarps, and metal fragments were used to get the water to flow where I wanted it. It could take hours to get the right amount of water kind of close to where I needed it to go. So lots of muddy fun, but also frustrating, especially when a freeze later took out the whole crop, which meant I wasn’t compensated for the hours spent playing caveman hydro-engineer.

Now we use gated-pipe (a 6-inch pipe with intermittent cut-outs that can be calibrated with little sliding doors called gates). This system is still relatively inefficient, though it works really well for us.

Frank, my mentor and partner, uses micro-sprinklers at each tree. This is definitely the trend among orchardists, but expense and a slew of other issues keeps our farm from upgrading. Besides, I’d hate to lose the feeling I get every spring when I first see water rushing out of the pipes and down between blossoming processions of trees.

Meet Casey: “I’ve finally found the farm I hope to spend the rest of my life on”

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Welcome 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 Casey Holland, Red Tractor Farm

It’s been raining the last few days. Not the deep, penetrating rain that all farmers hope for, but instead the fickle on-and-off showers that leave you wishing for more.

I grew up with the sort of weather that leaves you scratching your head and wondering what happened while enjoying the sweet scent of earth coming to life with moisture—the kind of weather New Mexico is known for. I grew up in the small southern New Mexico town of Deming. In my youth, afternoon showers were common, and in the summertime we all eagerly anticipated relief from the daily heat.

Summertime not only meant evenings playing in puddles, but for my family it also meant gleaning seconds from the large onion, pumpkin, and corn fields surrounding our small town. We were hungry, as were dozens of other families in similar situations, and the food left in the fields was one of many ways we were creative so that we would have something to eat.

NYFC_social_2.inddNew Mexico has one of the worst rates of both child and adult hunger, with one out of every five people receiving SNAP Food Stamp benefits. My mother grew up on a large farm in Belen, New Mexico but thanks to the convenience culture of the 1950s and ‘60s, she lost touch with the land, so gleaning was really my first introduction to formal agriculture. (more…)

Meet Nery: “I never thought I was going to be a farmer”

 

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Welcome 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 Nery Martinez, Santa Cruz Farm & Greenhouses

I’m Nery Martinez, a Guatemalan guy. When I came to the United States I was 18 years old, now I’m 27. I lived in California three-and-half years. During that time I worked in a restaurant and janitorial service. I never did any agriculture work, not even in my country. Honestly, when I was in Guatemala I didn’t help my grandpa clean his small corn and bean fields. I never thought that I was going to be farmer.

Over five years ago I came to New Mexico to spend time with my aunt and her husband, Don Bustos. Don owns Santa Cruz Farm & Greenhouses in Española, New Mexico, which is a six-acre vegetable farm that has been Certified Organic for more than 20 years and has been farmed by the same family for over 400 years. Shortly after coming to New Mexico I started working for him. I didn’t have plans to stay in New Mexico. I wanted to find a job to make some money to go back to my country. Then I started working in agriculture, and I changed my plans. The more I worked, the more I felt connected to the land, to my work, and to myself. I felt a passion for agriculture, so I kept doing it.

I remember my first day of work at the farm, not because it was hard work, but because I was walking on the baby lettuce in the greenhouses. Everything looked like weeds to me, and I didn’t have any experience farming. Little by little, like plants growing, I learned how to farm. (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…)

Meet Harrison: “There was nothing to do but irrigate and start dating.”

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Welcome 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 Harrison Topp, Topp Fruit

Three years ago I made my first fruit sale from my family’s orchard in Colorado. It was my first year managing a fruit crop after years of farming vegetables for a CSA in North Carolina. That first year, friends, family, and community members assembled from across the state to pick and store ton after ton of plums and cherries. The crop was bound for a fermentation start-up business in Boulder, CO called Ozuke.

It was an unbelievable success for me as a first-year orchardist. And to make things even sweeter, our fermented plums went on to win an Alice Waters Good Food Award.

The next year I ambitiously leaned into preparations for the season, having learned more than a few lessons about perennial fruit farming, labor, water, and wholesale marketing. I was busy finalizing my organic certification, honing my irrigation system, planting understory crops, lining up reliable workers, and expanding my markets. But, on April 13th, with the trees in full bloom, I lost my entire crop to a spring freeze. I was constantly reminded of the loss every time I switched the gates of our irrigation pipe or walked from tree to tree looking for pests.

Topp_blossoms_v-croppedThere was nothing left to do but irrigate and start dating. I found myself taking every chance I could to leave our little town of 1,300 people and travel across the mountains to Denver, Fort Collins, or Boulder, a four-hour journey. The urban landscape was a good distraction. And better yet, I could use Tinder and Okay Cupid. I coined the term “farmer-sexual” and was beginning to suspect that I was the only one who fit that orientation.

But boy-howdy, thank you Tinder, because after about six months of swiping right, I met the rancher of my dreams, Stacia Cannon. Now we’re back on the western slope together. This season we’ve managed to entwine ourselves in some new and very unique situations. (more…)

Our 2016 bloggers: Farming in the arid West

Topp_Irrigation pipe_croppedYoung farmers and ranchers in the arid West contend with all of the challenges faced by farmers in other regions—high land prices, access to capital, and often student loan debt—but they also face an additional barrier: water access. In many parts of the country, all farmers have to do to “access” water is turn to the sky, but in the arid West, farmers and ranchers often depend on irrigation water from rivers, ditches and other bodies of water for at least part of the growing season. Accessing water, therefore, means accessing land with water rights, and those water rights are subject to a myriad of different laws and traditions as well as competition from residential communities, other industries, and wildlife.

Does it sound complicated? It is. For the next six months, four young farmers/ranchers in the arid West 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 also put together a short glossary at the end of this post.

So without further ado, we’re excited to introduce our 2016 bloggers:

  • Harrison Topp of Topp Fruit in Paonia, Colorado and Fields Livestock in Montrose, Colorado
  • Tyler Hoyt of Green Table Farm in Mancos, Colorado
  • Nery Martinez of Santa Cruz Farm & Greenhouses in Espanola, New Mexico
  • Casey Holland of Red Tractor Farm in Albuquerque, New Mexico

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13 countries, 145 farmers: A profile of Joneve Murphy

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By Lauren Manning

Many people think you have to plant your feet firmly in one location to sew roots. For some folks, however, the exact opposite is true. Last year, Joneve Murphy embarked on a 10-month journey that snaked 29,000 miles across the globe through 13 countries.

“The idea for this project started a long time ago,” says Murphy, who grew up living abroad and traveling with her family from a young age. “My career in agriculture left me with time to gallivant in the off season, and at first I would just go backpacking for a month or two each year.”

Joneve Murphy (photo credit Molly Peterson)

Joneve Murphy (photo credit Molly Peterson)

Murphy has an impressive resume as an organic farmer, with 10 years of experience under her belt including a prestigious gig as the farmer-in-residence at Virginia’s The Inn at Little Washington

As Murphy became more involved with farming, her off-season sojourns involved fewer ruins and beaches and more farm visits and explorations of local food systems.

Soon, the idea for her yearlong agricultural safari was born. Murphy left her post at the Inn at Little Washington and set sail.

The carefully planned route allowed her to meet over 145 food producers around the world, whom she photographed and blogged about for her recent project, Farmer Seeking Roots.

(more…)