Welcome to the arid West! Follow our series as four young farmers/ranchers from Colorado and New Mexico write about their experiences with water access and explain 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.
We started our farm with a small, mixed garden plot; three pigs; two goats; and a handful of chickens. We planted perennial fruit trees and berry bushes in our first year so those crops would have time to reach maturity while we focused on other tasks. In our second year, we started breeding hogs, added a small-scale goat dairy, increased the size of our pastured laying flock, and expanded our vegetable production area for the local farmers’ markets. This was a trial period for many different crops; seeing what our land could produce, finding the niches in the market that we could fill, and figuring out what people would actually buy from our farm.
Throughout these first two years we have been experimenting with regionally adapted, drought tolerant, and dryland crop varieties, so that when the water situation gets rough, which it will, we will have crops that can thrive. We also use drip irrigation to conserve water, practice rotational grazing and tillage with hogs and chickens to increase our soil organic matter (water in the bank), and mulch or cover-crop land so that the relentless Southwestern sun and wind do not desiccate our clay soils. Water needs to be at the forefront of how we operate because it will (hopefully) help to keep us in business.
We chose to live and farm in a dry region simply because we love Southwestern Colorado too much to go somewhere else. We looked at land in more favorable climates, but ultimately we decided to stay in the area that we knew. Pushing the reset button on over a decade of accumulated local ecological knowledge seemed like too steep of a learning curve to accept.
We chose to settle in Mancos, Colorado because it is rural enough that we could afford a piece of land with water rights, but is also close to a thriving urban economy that values local and organically produced food. Mancos also has a burgeoning community of like-minded younger farmers and a local NYFC chapter, making it all the more appealing. Having a local community of organized farmers with common ideals and goals is a huge asset because it provides a supportive community of people to share knowledge, assistance, tools, and other helpful tidbits.
We farm because we want to spend the rest of our lives devoted to a singular piece of land. Regenerating abused land—and ultimately leaving it better off than when we started—is one of our foundational reasons for farming. We face an uphill battle most of the time, as our land was heavily overused by the previous negligent/absentee landowner, and the system-at-large is not set up to reward conservation-minded farming.
One of our favorite experiences so far has been the gratitude our neighbors have expressed for our willingness to take on and improve this piece of land. Most of them remember what this parcel looked like when the original rancher was taking care of it (a real land-husband who was succeeded by derelicts), and they long to see the return of that same measure of care.
We chose to become farmers for many reasons, but ultimately it comes down to the fact that we wanted a way of life that improved our general environment while keeping our bills paid. We hope that someday our future (not just yet) children will be able to take over to keep a legacy of conservation and rebuilding going because there are plenty of damaged and abused landscapes (both ecological and social) that could use a little help.