Irrigation at the Ute Farm and Ranch is State of the Art. But Nature Has to Provide the Water.
The Ute Mountain Ute Tribe operates a large farm and ranch on its lands in Southwestern Colorado. It grows crops like alfalfa and artisan corn, and raises over 600 head of cattle. The Tribe went through a long settlement process to obtain the water rights to operate the enterprise. But just because it has the farm and the rights to the water doesn’t mean they can use as much as they want.
That's because, in Southwestern Colorado, the weather has been very dry. It’s been even drier than normal for the high desert. Snowfall was at a fraction of average amounts over the winter. As of May 8th, the region is in “exceptional” drought status, the highest on the US Drought Information System’s scale.
On the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe Farm and Ranch, where over 7,000 acres of crops are grown, it’s also very dry. As part of the terms of a settlement from the 1980s, the tribe is entitled to a certain share of water in the nearby McPhee reservoir to run its farm. But when there’s a dry winter, the reservoir doesn’t fill.
Vaughn Cook, Interim General Manager for the Ute Mountain Ute Farm and Ranch Enterprise, says he nervous for the summer.
“Not only for this summer, but the following year,” Cook told KSJD in March.
Except for startup funds from the tribe’s settlement in the ‘80s, the Ute farm doesn’t receive any more funding or resources from the government than other farmers in the region.
“We are allotted so many acre feet of water a year, but when there’s a shortage we’re cut the same way,” he said.
This year, most farmers already have to cut back their usage by about 20 percent. If next winter also doesn’t get much precipitation, it will be a lot worse.
Because the Ute Farm and Ranch is already located in the middle of the desert, they know how important water is. That means they have to manage their operations carefully, and keep a close eye on the amount of water and resources they use. And they use high-tech systems to do so.
On a windy day in April, I took a trip around the farm with Ute Mountain Ute tribal member and longtime employee, Eric Whyte.
One of our stops was to look at the farm’s irrigation system. It is designed to be as efficient as possible. He showed me one of the farm’s 110 center pivot sprinklers. Each included hundreds of tiny water nozzles hung down from hoses suspended from gently-arched metal pipes, all attached to large frames with large wheels. The whole apparatus turned slowly in a giant circle, anchored in the middle of the field.
The water that we are applying right now is probably about an inch--one inch per acre,” Whyte explained. That’s why it’s not moving as fast…”
Whyte explained how a small spinning blade inside the sprinkler head can control how much water comes out.
“The angle [of the blade] is what gives it the size of the water droplet,” he said. “They can go from a zero to a little bit more aggressive-- where it’s throwing quite a bit more out, but a bigger droplet.”
Whyte said the irrigation sprinkler works in a similar fashion to a lawn sprinkler. However, the difference is that the Ute Farm’s sprinklers can be controlled remotely with an app on a smartphone, or from a computer program in the office. That can decide how fast to move the sprinkler pivots, how long to run the water, and what size droplets to create. And it controls and measures precisely how much water is being put on each of the farm’s fields. This whole system is much more technologically advanced than most of the other farms in the region.
Elsewhere on the farm, Whyte showed me how they use a style of cultivation called “strip tilling.” It
cuts narrow strips, instead of wide furrows, into the ground. That way they can channel water and fertilizer as close to the plant as possible. It’s also easier for the planter to get through the ground, so it saves fuel and energy. The farm has many of these practices to conserve resources.
“We use all our best estimates, and we use all the inputs that we do have, whether it’s soil sampling, fertilizer cost, fuel, seed cost...everything comes into account,” Whyte said.
But despite all the measures they take to conserve resources and keep their systems running, Whyte said it’s still not easy to make ends meet.
“Most farmers--or a lot of them--have said, in good years, you buy iron," he explained. "Whether it’s implements, or tractors, or pivots, or side rolls.”
“What about in bad years?” I asked him.
“Hopefully you break even….and that’s not always the case,” he responded.
“It’s kind of a farmer’s way of gambling,” he continued, “and granted, the tribe has other ways of gambling,” he said with a laugh.
And, like many other farmers and ranchers in the region, both Eric Whyte and Vaughn Cook say the main thing to do is to pray for rain.
“Water is gold,” said Cook. ‘In this area, if you don’t have the water you don’t have anything. You think it’s not limited but it is a limited supply. We have to make the best use out of the resource we have.”
So the soft hissing of the sprinklers continues in the quiet desert, bringing the farm one of the West’s most precious resources.
This story is part of Western Slope Resources Reporting, a collaboration between community radio stations KSJD, KBUT, KVNF, KDNK, and KOTO. It provides in-depth coverage of how people and organizations are finding creative and positive ways to overcome natural resource-related challenges.