A crash course in irrigation

Before we moved to the Western Slope, we were told again and again to make sure we buy water, not just a farm. Over here, water and land are sold separately, like toys and batteries. Just because water runs through, on or over your property doesn’t necessarily mean you have any right to use it.

The good news is that Quiet Farm does have adequate water, in most years. The bad news, however, is twofold: first, the Western Slope is in an unprecedented drought and at the moment no one has enough water. And second, we know precisely nothing about irrigation management. When you live in modern suburbia you just turn on the tap and the water flows magically, right? That is so much not the case here.

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Irrigation management on Quiet Farm doesn’t look like this.

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It looks like this: our Parshall flume (or weir) with attached flow gauge. No, we don’t know what any of those words mean, either.

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This is our water pump with screen to catch wildlife – raccoons, ground squirrels, marmots, whistlepigs, ponies, etc. – when they fall in. Looking forward to THAT happening.

We now own two shares of one of the Western Slope’s strongest irrigation ditches. There are dozens of ditch and reservoir companies; the vast majority of the area’s water comes from hundreds of lakes and reservoirs up on the Grand Mesa which are filled with precipitation each winter. When there is no snow, like last year, then there is no water in the ditches or reservoirs. And so water becomes a very valuable commodity.

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This is known as an “ag tap,” an abbreviation for agricultural. The water from this tap, however, is from our domestic supply. Confused? So are we.

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This is downstream of the water pump and will help irrigate our land with irrigation water. We think. Or maybe not.

When we want some of our water for irrigation – which we can have between the beginning of April and the end of October – we order a precise amount from the ditch company, accounting for absorption and loss along the way. Ditch riders, who live up on the mesa during the season, use a complicated system to send the water down the correct ditch to our property on a specific day. We have to be out at our headgates at about 6AM to start our run, and the water we use is debited from our account, just like a bank. We can lease, sell, trade or give away our water as we see fit, but if we order water, it’s coming to our property whether we’re ready or not. So figuring out our irrigation system is of paramount importance to our future success.

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Our water will run through gated pipe, a common sight in our area. Big farms will own thousands of feet and it’s set up according to your property’s individual landscape and contour. The black gates open and shut to control the water flow.

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A lot of our gated pipe currently looks like this, which is obviously not workable. Even we know that.

In case you’re worried that we’re actually living in Little House on the Prairie, our house has a domestic tap, which is just like water in a normal house. Except that domestic water here is crushingly expensive, especially compared to Front Range rates, which means we absolutely cannot run a farm on domestic water without bankrupting ourselves. No more domestic taps are being issued in our area; local government doesn’t think we have the water to support additional growth – unlike on the Front Range, where greedy, short-sighted counties sell their water to the big cities and then wonder why their towns die. Domestic taps are worth tens of thousands of dollars over here, if you could even buy one.

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Apparently little critters like chewing on the gates inside the pipe. The gates cost $3 each, and we have dozens missing. The few remaining intact ones are probably being eaten right now while you’re reading this.

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The end of the line. Of course, if the pipes aren’t connected properly we’ll just flood everything and there is no way to turn the water off once we’ve called for it. So good luck with that.

We’ve got just about a month to figure this system out, because once the water goes off at the end of October we’ll have no way of testing our work. And when the water (hopefully) starts running again next spring, we want to be ready to get our pasture in good shape.

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Good news, though! We’re unknowingly growing a pasture of invasive elm trees that will need to be removed by hand…

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…when we’re not growing anything at all. Surprisingly, bare pasture is actually worse than having even invasive plants in the ground.

The moral of this tale, friends, is not to take water for granted. The daily luxury of fresh, clean, potable water is an absolute gift and one that not even everyone in the U.S. has access to. So treat your water like the precious resource it is, and know that it is finite. And wars over water will be much more devastating than wars over oil.

There is much work to be done, and winter is coming. Pray for snow.

Two free classes!

Thank you all so much for your kind words and your good wishes about our purchase of Quiet Farm. We have a ton of work ahead of us but are exhilarated by the challenge.

And in other news, if you’re in the Denver area I’m thrilled to announce that I’ll be teaching two cooking classes at Broomfield Public Library this fall! Both classes are free and open to the public, but you must register in advance due to space limitations. Please see registration details below.

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Just some of the local produce awaiting the canning pot.

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Yes, you can!

First up, I’m teaching all about canning & preserving on Wednesday, September 26 from 6:30-7:30PM. Learn more and register here, or call 720.887.2350!

Savoring summer’s freshest fruits, vegetables and herbs well into the cold weather is easy with a little canning and preserving knowledge – and preserving is a lot less intimidating than you think. There is nothing like opening a jar of fresh, sunny peaches or rich, flavorful tomato sauce in the middle of cold, dark January! Join Chef Elizabeth Buckingham for this fun class where you’ll learn the basics of preserving, including water bath canning, freezing, pickling and dehydrating. We’ll taste lots of delicious jams, chutneys, salsas, pickles and more, and you’ll leave class ready to preserve your own seasonal bounty. Recipe handouts and generous food samples served! (Please note that class is lecture and demonstration – not hands-on – and is geared towards guests twelve years of age and older.)

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What will you be for Halloween? I plan to be deeply angry about our compromised food system. Or a Killer Bear. Not sure yet.

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Mmm…plastic food in plastic packages.

And in October, we’ll talk spooky Halloween treats! Come see me on Wednesday, October 24, again from 6:30-7:30PM. More info and registration here, or call 720.887.2350!

Interested in upping your Halloween treat game this year? Join Chef Elizabeth Buckingham for this fun class where you’ll taste a variety of new Halloween treats. We’ll talk sweet and savory, snacks and beverages, and you’ll leave with plenty of great ideas for all of your spookiest Halloween gatherings. Recipe handouts and generous food samples served! (Please note that class is lecture and demonstration – not hands-on – and is geared towards guests twelve years of age and older.) 

I’d love to see you at one of these classes this fall! Thanks to Broomfield Public Library for hosting my classes, and please support your local library system no matter where you live.

An announcement

Many of you know this, and the rest of you have probably guessed, but N and I found Quiet Farm. (We’re not changing our website, however.) We closed on the property in early August and have just now gotten all of our things moved from the Front Range over to our (new to us) house. We heard too many horror stories about unscrupulous, lazy and irresponsible moving companies, so we opted to do the whole move ourselves. N had plenty of experience driving a 25-foot RV, so driving a 26-foot box truck couldn’t be much different, right? (P.S. We sold the RV. Bittersweet, but it served its purpose for our transient summer. And it’s just right down the road from us, so we can visit it if we want!)

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Quiet Farm is a ten-acre parcel just outside of Cedaredge, on Colorado’s Western Slope. We’re tucked under the Grand Mesa and surrounded on three sides by apple orchards; to the south we can see all the way to the San Juan Mountains. Just over eight acres of the property is in pasture, but both the land and the house have been essentially abandoned and unloved for about five years. It will take a lot of time and hard work and water to regenerate the pasture; historically it’s always been alfalfa, but we’re looking at other drought-tolerant options, too – maybe hops or quinoa?

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Our vision for Quiet Farm is an organic teaching farm and cooking school. We plan to build a certified commercial kitchen in a detached garage on the property. We’ll offer classes on everything from healthy cooking basics to bread baking to canning and preserving to beekeeping to fermentation to knife skills, and any other homesteading topics that our guests might be interested in. We’ll keep laying hens for eggs and pest control, goats for milk and entertainment, beehives and extensive vegetable and perennial plantings. We want to be part of the community and host potluck suppers and farm tours and coffee klatches and food swaps. We want to showcase the amazing fruit and animals and people this part of Colorado offers. We want Quiet Farm to be an agritourism destination.

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We’ll post regular farm updates here, with before-and-after pictures so you can see our progress. It took us three years to find Quiet Farm, and we’ve got a lot of work to do to fully realize our vision, but we’re exactly where we want to be. Thank you for joining us on this journey, and we’re so much looking forward to all of the incredible adventures ahead. We can’t wait to share Quiet Farm with you!

 

Life in a small town

We came upon our new hometown by accident, on our way back from Oregon last fall. We’d spent seven or eight weeks working on farms and looking for farmland up in the Pacific Northwest, until we finally acknowledged that region wasn’t our place. We drove across Nevada on I-80 – a bleak journey if ever there was one – dropped down on I-15 when we hit Salt Lake, then took I-70 eastbound through Utah and back into Colorado.

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We needed a place to crash for the night, and I had booked us an unknown Airbnb in some tiny dot on the map called Cedaredge, in the shadow of the Grand Mesa. I’m a Colorado native and I’d never heard of it; most of the people on the Front Range haven’t, either. Cedaredge is in Delta County, along with Paonia, Hotchkiss, Crawford and Delta; it’s a town of two thousand people and it’s famous for its apples. The town’s annual Applefest, in early October, brings an additional twenty-five thousand people in.

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The Farm Series: Fritchman Orchards

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It’s August, and it’s punishingly hot, but at least we’ve got peaches. This week we went up to Fritchman Orchards to watch a bit of the peach harvest. As always, it’s humbling to observe just how much work goes into producing the fruits and vegetables we take for granted. At this time of year, harvest starts around six in the morning, so that the majority of the work can be done before the temperature tops 90 degrees.

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Experienced pickers harvest peaches by color.

When we tell people on the Front Range that we’re moving to the Western Slope, they invariably ask about peaches. Specifically, they ask about Palisade peaches. And this is not designed to malign Palisade peaches – because they’re spectacular, of course! – but to introduce the concept of branding, and how it can perhaps to be used to confuse a situation, especially when it comes to local food.

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Restless book club

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This should be a gorgeous shot of the San Juan Mountains; unfortunately they are completely obscured by smoke.

A heaviness sits over our Western Slope mesa right now. For two weeks we’ve seen evidence of numerous wildfires nearby plus California, too; the normally clean, crisp air is thick with a sickly haze and it smells as though you’re standing in the middle of a campfire. Our pure blue sky hasn’t been seen in some time, and you can almost taste the ash on your tongue. The rains are infrequent, but when they do come – even when they disrupt an annual town potluck – they seem to wash the smoke away, and people rejoice. It feels charred, dry and desperate here, and we’ll be the first to admit that we’re getting restless. We’re mired in an enforced and extended waiting period on the farm we’re trying to purchase, so while there have been plenty of farm visits, long, hilly bike rides, hiking in Grand Mesa National Forest, fruit picking and hours of tennis, there is also a lot of escapist reading going on these days.

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The Farm Series: Desert Weyr

Of late, our Western Slope farm visits have taken us to pick delicious cherries and to meet happy pigs. How about we introduce you to some unusual sheep?

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Desert Weyr is perched high on a mesa above the town of Paonia.

In the late 1990s, Eugenie “Oogie” McGuire decided she wanted to craft herself a traditional medieval cloak – from scratch. It would be made from wool, of course. She purchased one ram, five ewes and a loom, taught herself how to spin, weave and sew, and eventually made the cloak. As she says, “It’s more accurate for the 18th century. It took me six years to weave the fabric, two more to get up the courage to cut it, and two weeks to hand-sew it.” But what commitment! Now, Oogie and her husband, Ken, raise a large flock of Black Welsh Mountain sheep on pasture above Paonia.

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Adventures in RVing, vol. 2

Oh, hello there! We’re not really lost in the wilds somewhere; we’re just spending the summer traveling back and forth between the Western Slope and the Front Range. This is only a 300-mile commute but it’s so much more adventurous than it sounds!

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If you drive between the Western Slope and the Front Range you must cross the Continental Divide (whether you want to or not). On this trip, we chose Monarch Pass.

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Sometimes you get caught in a cattle drive. Livestock always have right-of-way.

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Our house (on the left) is tiny compared to some of the big rigs we’ve seen!

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Learning to back N into tight spots is one of my newly acquired skills.

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N can drive the RV and take photos. Don’t try this at home, kids.

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Apparently I can drive and take photos, too. Isn’t Colorado pretty?

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In case you’re wondering, wooden clothespins do not solve vapor lock. We’re hoping a new fuel pump will.

 

Ode to the cherry

One key element missing from our globalized grocery industry is seasonality. By that, I mean that we can have virtually whatever food we want, whenever we want it. It doesn’t occur to us that tomatoes taste better in August, or that citrus is sweeter and juicier in winter. Our supermarket produce departments know no seasons, and that is a loss – but because most of us have never known true seasonality, we don’t demand it. We should.

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Colorado’s Western Slope has long grown most of the stone fruit produced between California and the Midwest, and wine grapes are now in vogue here as well. Make no mistake, though: growing fruit in a high-plains desert more than five thousand feet above sea level, with less than ten inches of total precipitation a year (that’s rain and snow), isn’t easy. Plus, the orchards and vineyards here are tiny, averaging only a few dozen acres; these are micro-orchards compared to those in California and Oregon and Washington, which cover thousands of acres. All of that means when cherries are in season here, often for as little as two weeks, one must act quickly. And so we did, hustling up to Antelope Hill Orchards for the opportunity to pick our own.

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The Farm Series: Colorado Pastured Pork

We’ve (sort of) relocated to the Western Slope, and we’re focused on meeting as many local farmers as possible. If we truly intend to start Quiet Farm here, and if we intend for it to grow into a thriving business, building a strong local producer network will be key to our success. To that end, when we’re not driving around looking for property, we’re visiting farms and ranches who practice the same sort of farming we plan to embrace.

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The Western Slope – specifically Delta County, where we’re currently based – has a long history of agriculture, but most of those ag products were shipped to population centers in Denver (to the east) and Salt Lake City (to the west). Now, with “local food” and “agritourism” evolving as valid ways for poorer counties to earn revenue, there is a movement afoot to encourage small farmers and other sustainable, innovative producers to make their mark here. Surprisingly, Delta County has more acres of organic farmland than any other county in Colorado (I know, we thought it was the Kingdom of Boulder, too).

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