For a site called Finding Quiet Farm, we don’t actually write that much about finding Quiet Farm. This isn’t because we’re not looking, but because we haven’t found much worth sharing. Farmland in the U.S. is bulldozed and paved over for housing developments and shopping malls at a staggering rate of forty acres per hour, and the land that is available tends to be just a touch out of our price range. We spent a month in Oregon this fall, volunteering on farms and looking for our own place, but ultimately decided that Oregon wasn’t our home. We drove back to Denver through Colorado’s Western Slope, and decided to give that part of the state – previously ignored – a closer look in the new year.
The first week of 2018 saw us westbound from Denver crossing the high mountain passes, which was easy instead of treacherous because winter in Colorado was canceled this year. We visited Grand Junction, Delta, Montrose, Olathe, Hotchkiss and Paonia, areas famous for peaches and sweet corn and cherries and the center of Colorado’s nascent wine industry, too.
Our trusty road trip car. (Just kidding.)
Over the course of three long, intense days, we saw maybe a dozen properties. Most, of course, were discarded immediately: rickety house in need of extensive, costly renovation, sketchy neighbors, too much infrastructure devoted to horses, odd adobe construction, property too close to busy roads. But there were two in particular that caught our attention: one forty-acre parcel just outside of Grand Junction, a reasonably major population center, and one in a tiny apple-growing area just up the Grand Mesa, the largest flat-topped mountain in the world.
Apple trees with protective winter coverings ready for use…if winter ever appears.
Vintage fruit murals in downtown Delta.
The forty-acre parcel had everything we want: privacy yet proximity to a city; a quirky, unusual home, perfect for our unconventional life; plenty of outbuildings for animals and vegetables and minerals, a massive barn and an exceptionally attractive price. But it was missing one key thing that means everything in our high-plains desert: water. The land had no irrigation, and no way of obtaining irrigation. So we could have forty private acres, but they would be forty acres of dust and tumbleweeds (thus explaining the price). We had to walk away.
Good morning, donkey!
We stayed in this spectacular renovated schoolhouse in Delta. Thanks, Airbnb!
The second-to-last property we looked at, ten acres mixed into orchards outside of Delta, was one N had had his virtual eye on for quite some time. Once we were finally able to see it, we fell hard. A 1901 farmhouse, heavily renovated but still full of original charm, lots of usable outbuildings in great condition, space to install greenhouses and a commercial teaching kitchen and maybe even tiny homes for Airbnb rentals, plus two shares of ditch water. We were in love.
The old Challenge Creamery in Eckert, now an antique store.
Migratory sandhill cranes are one of the area’s most popular attractions.
The cranes forage in the dormant cornfields.
And now that we’re thinking about getting serious with this place – and that we realize how much the property price is based on included water rights – we’ve acknowledged that we know nothing about Colorado’s most valuable resource, nor how it’s divvied up. Colorado water rights are some of the most intricate and arcane in the country; they’re based on an (obsolete) 125-year-old appropriation system that essentially stakes claims based on a “first in time, first in right” system, so you need to know your place in line when claiming shares.
To further complicate matters, decades-old agreements mean that cities downstream can, in theory, make what’s known as “a call on the river,” so if Lake Powell runs dry (which it may do in as few as five years), our water could be claimed by Las Vegas and other thirsty cities. If we buy land here, we’d be part of a water system that serves over forty million people, and just because we buy the water doesn’t mean we actually own it – or can use it for our farm. It’s convoluted, to say the least. Just remember that if you can currently turn on a tap and get fresh, clean water whenever you want, thank your lucky stars. It’s not a given everywhere in the world, not even in the U.S., and soon – maybe a decade or so, maybe less – water will be much more precious than oil.
So what now? Now, we do everything possible to educate ourselves about water rights and ditch shares and other fascinating farm-related topics. (Trouble sleeping? Try a little water law.) And we’ll head back out to the Western Slope in late January and we’ll see where things stand, and we’ll decide if we want to move forward with this particular piece of land. And maybe, just maybe, we will have found Quiet Farm. But then what will we call this site? That, friends, is a problem we’d be happy to have.