Climate change adaptation and tradition coexist in Colorado’s San Luis Valley

By Johnna Geick 

CENTER – Nestled between the Sangre de Cristo and San Juan mountains, Colorado’s San Luis Valley is a place of peace. 

But in the serenity, farmers are struggling to survive economically while keeping their family traditions alive.

They’re facing a water crisis. Climate impacts on mountain snowpack along the headwaters of the Rio Grande River and over-pumping of water from underground aquifers increasingly make traditional farming unsustainable. 

Some farmers are reluctant to change. However, the brothers who run Rockey Farms– third generation potato producers in the middle of the valley– are showing that new, water-saving methods are superior.

Farmers in this valley are driven by, “love and passion,” Sheldon Rockey said in a recent interview in his break room on the farm.

His grandfather began farming here in 1938. He passed his land to his sons, a common practice in the valley. Most of the farms in the valley are family owned. 

While family values endure, the climate is changing. Rising temperatures have led to a decrease in the volume of snowpack in the mountains surrounding the San Luis Valley. Farmers rely on this snowpack to fill streams and replenish aquifers, the two sources of water for irrigating crops. Since 1976, water in the aquifers of the San Luis Valley has been decreasing, according to Rio Grande Water Conservation District general manager Cleave Simpson.

Previous generations of farmers in the valley knew no water limits. Rockey’s grandfather once was told he wouldn’t be able to farm because in places it was swampy from moisture. 

But survival now depends on conserving water.

“When we grew up, we never saw what we saw in ‘02,” Rockey said, referring to a severe drought in 2002 that hurt many farms in the valley. A gradual shift toward aridity has forced farmers to form sub-districts and put a price-tag on pumping from aquifers in an effort to manage the dwindling water supply. 

But water for farming still depends on natural precipitation in the mountains around the valley. 

“Where we’re at today, If the next twenty years looks like the last twenty years, it’s a problem. We still have folks who wanna believe their well doesn’t affect the river system,” Simpson said. 

Many farmers believe that if their methods have always worked for them in the past, there is no reason to change, said Rockey, flanked by farmhand Riley Kern.

Rockey and a growing number of farmers, however, are embracing water-saving farming techniques.

For the last two decades, Rockey Farms has dedicated half of their acreage to sixteen different crops that require much less water than potatoes. The plants are used as used as cover crops which fertilize the soil, attract beneficial insects, and suppress weeds. Using this technique, called green manure, reduces the amount of water pumped from the aquifer. Rockey says the farm has cut their water usage in half since they began this practice. 

Sustainability isn’t the only benefit. Rockey saves money each year because green manure removes the necessity for expensive treatments like herbicides and insecticides. More directly, because water is subsidized in the valley, decreased usage means money saved. Rockey Farms now has a surplus of water on the farm, saving them the cost of rising water fees. 

“We have more surface water coming in than we pump out. We’ve become balanced,” said Rockey.  

But monetary gain isn’t the primary motivation behind Rockey Farms’ sustainable choices. The family understands that continual decrease in the water supply threatens farming itself, which is so central to the economy, culture, and identity of the valley. 

So why aren’t more people following in the footsteps of Rockey when it comes to sustainable water usage? 

“What about human nature, the fear of the unknown?” prompted Samuel Essah, Extension Specialist at Colorado State University, San Luis Valley Research Center. Many in the valley are skeptical of new unfamiliar practices simply because they live in a place with such a historically consistent way of life. 

Familiar practices allow for an instant reward system while many water-saving methods require wait time for payoff. For example, the federally run Conservation Reserve Program pays farmers to transition to flood and farrow irrigation techniques, which use less water than the traditional center pivot sprinkler system and allow for more direct recharge of aquifers. But the program is ten to fifteen years in length, and many farmers are uncomfortable dedicating that much time to a program of which they have not seen the benefits firsthand.

“Some people are very conservative. It’s human nature. Once they see people succeeding, they’ll jump,” predicted Essah. 

Techniques like the ones employed by Rockey and other farmers in the valley are effective both environmentally and economically. Rockey has been able to maintain his passion for traditional farming and uphold his family values, even with new methods . 

“I’m about the whole picture. I don’t wanna see the valley grow, but I don’t wanna see it lose what it already has,” Rockey said. One day, he plans on passing the farm down to his daughters, who will be the first generation of women to run the farm. But passing down the legacy requires passing down the resources. Through sustainable practices, Rockey and others are working hard to make sure future generations can keep producing and cherishing the farming culture.


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