In a Sustained Drought, Water Solutions Funding Supports Agricultural Innovation in Rural Colorado | LOR Foundation

In a Sustained Drought, Water Solutions Funding Supports Agricultural Innovation in Rural Colorado

By Ilana Newman, The Daily Yonder


Dan Hobbs displays three varieties of corn at the Pueblo Seed farm in McElmo Canyon, Colorado in 2023. (Photo by Ilana Newman)

This story was produced through the Daily Yonder Rural Reporting Fellowship, with support from the LOR Foundation.

Walk into Pueblo Seed and Food Co on a Friday afternoon in Cortez, Colorado, and you’ll be met with a wall full of bread that looks a little different than bread at the supermarket. The Pueblo Brick, for instance, is a loaf made with rye flour, einkorn (an ancient grain), and blue corn, topped with seeds and nuts, and fermented for 30 hours. But the most unique part of Pueblo Seed and Food Co is that many of the grains that are milled and baked on the premises, are grown only a few miles from it.

In McElmo Canyon, about 10 miles outside of Cortez, the Pueblo Seed and Food farm sits nestled up against red rock canyon walls. Here, Dan Hobbs grows seeds, grains, and vegetables to sell. He’s always experimenting to try and find the species that grow best in the dry, arid region of the Colorado Plateau.

Water is a constant topic of conversation in the Four Corners region and the Southwest beyond. Will there be enough? When will it run out? How much precipitation will come with summer monsoons? How much remains contained in the snow-capped mountains?

Nanna Meyer wraps up a Sun Loaf for a customer at Pueblo Seed and Food Co. in Cortez, Colorado. The Sun Loaf is made with Pueblo White Whole Wheat grown at the Pueblo Seed farm in 2021-22. (Photo by Ilana Newman)

The Colorado River Basin has been in an extended drought for the past couple decades, with a few good water years scattered between many dry ones. Innovations to conserve water are the path forward for farmers and agriculturalists in the Four Corners region.

For farmers like Hobbs, innovation is a part of the job. In 2023, the LOR Foundation, a foundation that supports rural communities in the Mountain West, introduced a funding program called Field Work. The program funds water innovation in agriculture, up to $10,000.

This funding supported projects across the Mountain West, with projects ranging from reducing evaporation from livestock water troughs, to experimenting with making water “more wet” via an underground magnetic tool that breaks up large clusters of molecules so it’s easier for cells to absorb.

At the Pueblo Seed farm in McElmo Canyon, outside of Cortez, Colorado, Dan Hobbs stands in the middle of one of his fields. (Photo by Ilana Newman)

Hobbs received funding from LOR to experiment with unique and heritage grains and seeds that might be better adapted to the drought conditions of the Four Corners than most conventional grains. He brought in lesser-known grains like sorghum, millet, durum, barley, and grains from the Sahel region of Africa, an area between the dry Sahara and the humid savannas. Montezuma County is similar in that it sits between the desert and the San Juan Mountains.

“That process of learning about these new plants is just really fascinating. Some of them don’t work, but you don’t know until you try,” said Hobbs. “You can study all you want, but until you plant it and harvest it, you just don’t know. And so the ones that do work, then there’s this next challenge of moving into the kitchen and what do we do with this? Do people want to eat this? Does it taste good? Is it nutritious?”

This last piece, the nutritional element, is what sets Pueblo Seed and Food apart from other farms. Hobbs and his partner Nanna Meyer care about both the feasibility of growing grains in the drought-prone Colorado River Basin, and increasing awareness of the nutritional benefits of heritage grains.

Meyer, who grew up in Switzerland, says that dark bread made out of grains like rye and spelt were more common in her youth than they are in the United States. Her background in sports nutrition led to an interest in the health benefits of these grains that are rarely used commercially in the U.S. “I was a total grain nerd as a child,” said Meyer.

Nanna Meyer helps a customer at Pueblo Seed and Food Co. in Cortez, Colorado on a Friday afternoon in April. (Photo by Ilana Newman)

All of the grains used by Pueblo Seed and Food Co are whole grains, which Meyer says add a whole host of nutritional benefits, including fiber that most Americans are not getting nearly enough of. All of the baked goods are also made with sourdough and a long fermentation process that releases nutrients, lowers the pH, and decreases gluten. “A rye loaf made with malted rye and sprouted rye – it’s a protein bomb,” said Meyer, highlighting another health benefit of the grains and processes she uses for her baked goods.

Across the county, Katie Terrell Ramos also received Field Work funding for the expansion of her lavender farm and drip irrigation system at Mesa Verde Lavender. Terrell Ramos started farming in Mancos, Colorado in 2021 and chose lavender as the main crop because of its drought resiliency and her interest in the plant as a culinary herb. She currently sells her products to coffee shops, apothecaries, and bakers in Southwest Colorado.

As a first-generation farmer, Terrell Ramos has spent the last three years learning. The farm is a multi-generational family project, with her husband, and in-laws helping out with everything from engineering to construction to staying organized.

Katie Terrell Ramos holds up bouquets of lavender at Mesa Verde Lavender outside of Mancos, Colorado. (Photo by Ilana Newman)

“We have to be open-minded and willing to learn. And being someone who’s never farmed, I don’t have these preconceived notions of how things should go,” said Terrell Ramos.

Terrell Ramos has found that most people are willing to help, from exchanging produce with neighbors to learning about different lavender farming techniques from farmers across the Colorado River Basin. But she also acknowledges that every micro-climate is unique, and what one farmer does in one area might not work even in a similar region. Experimentation is key.

To save water, Terrell Ramos checks the soil moisture every morning and waters only when the plants need it. She tends to water only every couple weeks, for up to an hour. She also uses companion plants like calendula and yarrow, which she then turns into tea or adds to herbal blends with the harvested lavender. Companion planting can help reduce evaporation through shade and improve soil structure to help water retention.

For Hobbs and Terrell Ramos, adapting farming practices to the regional conditions, in this case a lack of water, is paramount for continued success. Instead of attempting to force the land to bend to their needs, they have chosen crops that work in an arid, high-elevation climate, and they continue to try out different species and cultivars to find the best options for Southwest Colorado.

“Our environment has shaped our interests and our needs,” said Hobbs. “With all of the focus on climate change and what’s happening in the Colorado Basin, it has gone to another level of urgency.”

This article first appeared on The Daily Yonder and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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