In “Dispatches From the Fields,” Ariane Lotti and Stephanie Ogburn, who are working on small farms in Iowa and Colorado this season, share their thoughts on producing real food in the midst of America’s agro-industrial landscape.
It’s somewhat astonishing that there’s a thriving local food scene where I live, in Montezuma County, Colorado. Not because the area is poor, rural, and thus removed from the trendiness of the local food movement that has hit most large population centers — rather, because it’s so difficult to grow food here.
In a normal year, towns in Montezuma County get between 13 and 18 inches of precipitation. The growing season is short; although most of the region falls into zones 6a/5b on the USDA hardiness map, it frosted here on June 12 this year, and that’s not unusual. Temperature variation between day and night can easily range 40 degrees, as the thin desert air heats up with the sun but fails to retain any of that heat due to the lack of humidity.
So how do growers survive blistering desert-hot days in summer combined with a June that packs the one-two punch of no measurable precipitation and a killing frost twelve days into the month, as temperatures brush 90 during the day and plummet as soon as the sun sets?
There are two main answers to this problem in southwest Colorado. The answer to the problem of cold nights and late frosts is season extenders. These can range from the thin white material of floating row covers, which give plants an extra few degrees of warmth, to black plastics that cover the ground, heating the soil and keeping solar radiation in, to cold frames and unheated and heated greenhouse structures. It’s actually quite ingenious how some local growers have rigged their systems to produce tomatoes by mid-July and greens far into the winter months.
The answer to the other problem, that of low rainfall, is irrigation. Many local growers here own shares in the Montezuma Valley Irrigation Company. This company connects to the local reservoir, McPhee, the second-largest reservoir in Colorado. After growers get this water, I’ve seen them use a variety of irrigation methods, both here and in other parts of Western Colorado. The three main types are overhead sprinkler systems, furrow irrigation, which uses pipes at the top of a field to flood it with water, and drip irrigation systems, which are the most water efficient and deliver water that through seepage to the plant’s roots.
What intrigues me about these solutions to the difficulties of growing crops in southwest Colorado is that they both rely heavily on external inputs to essentially transform the high desert into a growing environment that is very far removed from its ecological character. Thus, extending the growing season and adding water — a lot of water — enables growers in this semi-arid region to produce almost exactly the same crops here that are grown in Iowa or Virginia. Although they are notoriously difficult to grow here, farmers do produce crops like tomatoes, eggplants, and bell peppers. Consumers expect these crops too, often asking in June why there aren’t any tomatoes yet.
Thus, the agricultural focus, even among small market growers, is not on finding seed varieties that thrive in a short growing season with cool nights and hot days, but rather on manipulating the existing environment so that it becomes a place where varieties developed in places with longer seasons and more water can be grown.
Of course, agriculture has always been about manipulating the environment in one form or another to get the earth to produce what you want. This style of growing is not unusual purely for the manipulation that takes place, then, but rather for the extent of the manipulation and the contrast to the type of agriculture that could exist here, an agriculture that could be much less reliant on such resource-intensive changes to the land.
This alternate way of growing relies more on working within the existing ecological system. It depends on finding varieties that can grow despite little rainfall. It also demands that close attention be paid to planting locations. Farmers would need to locate plots near rainwater collection spots on their land, allowing them to craft small scale, rainfed irrigation systems. These plots would also sit where the cool night air stays a bit warmer, in places like mesa tops, which are often warmer than canyon bottoms.
Not many people practice this sort of agriculture nowadays. Compared to the system we now have, it might sound difficult and impractical. But historically, the desert Southwest was practically a breadbasket of a highly developed agrarian society that’s now known as the Ancestral Puebloan civilization. (These people were formerly called the Anasazi.)
According to archaeologists, this region, which now supports 25,000 people, supported about 20,000 in its height, between A.D. 1000 and 1300. And they were all fed primarily locally, through a combination of agriculture and hunting/gathering.
I find this an interesting contrast to the current way local agriculture is practiced here. I’m not by any means advocating a return to the lifestyle of those who lived and thrived here 1,000 years ago. Nevertheless I do think a farmer willing to try growing desert-adapted foods and to pay close attention to the concept of place in her agricultural endeavor could grow a wide variety of interesting foods that would probably taste amazing, since they are adapted to this climate, and be much less resource intensive. This sort of agriculture would also cut down on a lot of the headaches that accompany growing here. As someone who grew up in the middle of the East Coast, I find it truly mentally taxing to fret about one’s tomato plants getting frosted well into June and then worry about them again as soon as September hits, while most of them are still green on the vine.
There’s an experiment going on at a nearby archaeological research and education center called Crow Canyon. Researchers there, working with American Indians whose ancestors lived and grew food in this region, have planted a dryland garden, part of a program called the Pueblo Farming Project. It will be interesting to see their results in growing crops under the guidance of American Indians who possess traditional agricultural seeds and know-how. Perhaps local farmers in the region will also take note.
As I return to my farm work this week, I plan to assist in the layout of a drip system for a new passive solar greenhouse at Dragonfly Farm, a project which incorporates both the growing tools of season extension and irrigation. This weekend I used sprinklers to irrigate the outdoor farm plot, giving the thirsty lettuce crop a much-needed drink.
In a few years, though, I’d like to be spending less time wrangling with irrigation and frantically covering up the nightshades on those June and September nights, and more time using my knowledge of place, plants, and history.
Native Seeds/SEARCH, the organization founded by Gary Nabhan, has a seed catalog with traditional varieties of the desert Southwest, and there are a lot of options there to purchase seeds adapted to this climate. Native plant harvesting is also a viable option; the pinyon-pine trees covering the region have long been a major source of calorie-rich pine nuts, and last year I collected many pounds of prickly pear tunas for personal use in syrups and juice. (The juice also makes a great addition to margaritas.)
The big question, though, is whether the nascent locavore culture is willing to accept a local food system that grows more tiny tomatoes than beefsteaks, more melons than mesclun mix. That sort of growing would make our food system much more sustainable, but it would require a significant cultural adjustment in terms of taste. As a grower, sowing more locally-adapted foods would lessen one’s ecological footprint while also reducing risk in terms of production, but it doesn’t matter if you have a bumper crop of tepary beans or tomatillos to sell at market if all customers want are juicy Brandywines and European salad greens.