Farm update: December 17

Hello! How are you? We’ve still got quite a lot of snow sticking around, but it’s been dry for a week and we’d love to have more moisture. We attended the annual meeting of our ditch company recently, and all of the stoic old-time farmers seemed quite thrilled at the snowpack thus far this year. It’s a big change for the better from last year, to be certain, and we hope the pattern continues.

Orchard Snow 01 sml

The peach orchard across the road.

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One of the most delicious items we received in our CSA was heirloom cornmeal, ground from Painted Mountain corn. We take corn so much for granted in this country – as Michael Pollan says, we’re “the United States of Corn” – and sometimes we forget how much of humanity has been nourished on this incredible grain. Growing heirloom corn for eating fresh and for grinding is just one way we can recapture some of the food sovereignty that we’ve lost. I made fabulous hot pepper cornbread and plan on making cheesy polenta this week.

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A crash course in irrigation, vol. 2

Hello, could everyone please put on their interested faces? We’re going to get into the nuts and bolts of learning how to run ditch water on our farm, and we know you won’t want to miss a single moment.

We ordered our water two weeks ago; today is the final day of the season we can have it. We’ve called for half a foot for two days, the minimum we can request and hopefully enough for us to test our gated pipe and our repairs. There will be no more testing this season after this run, so we need to learn all we can.

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At the headgate before sunrise.

The morning of the irrigation call starts with a pre-dawn alarm and a drive to the headgate (about a half-mile north of our farm). On the stile post we find a metal tin with the day’s water requests: where the water is going and in what quantity. The paper below it lists which households are on which ditch lateral (west or south).

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This is the Stevens and Linder ditch ticket; there are four requests with the totals listed (names underneath ours removed for privacy). All four of the day’s requests are located on the west lateral so the first task was to shut the headgate to the south lateral, thereby directing all the water to the west.

The ticket shows the quantity of water requested by us (.50 or half a foot), the corresponding gauge chart conversion (.47) – to be remembered to help set the flow gauge on our property – and lastly the water shrink to be expected due to ditch loss (6%). Requests three and four on the ticket won’t suffer the 6% water shrink because they’re on decree water and it doesn’t apply. Those folks have senior water rights which allows them decree water (free and separate from their water shares) even at the end of the season. For almost everyone else this season, there was no decree water at all; the reservoirs are too low to allow it. We’re supposedly in a hundred-year drought, but even that is a misnomer; we’ll almost certainly see a drought this severe or worse again in our lifetimes. Extreme drought is the new normal here, and learning how to properly manage our water rights will be key to our longterm success.

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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.

Water Droplets
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…

QF Irrigation 10 sml

…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.

Scouting trip

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 rangeWe 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.

Colorado sign sml

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.

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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.

Orchards

Apple trees with protective winter coverings ready for use…if winter ever appears.

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