Agriculture is a difficult profession in the best of times, but it’s an even bigger challenge during a drought.
That’s one of the many takeaways from Wednesday evening’s panel discussing current and future issues for local agriculture sponsored by the League of Women Voters of La Plata County. About 85 people filled the Program Rooms at the Durango Public Library, including representatives from agricultural areas around the county and numerous local residents, as well.
“Everyone in this room is in agriculture because we’re all consumers,” said Patti Buck, president of American National Cattlewomen, who ranches with her husband, Wayne, in the Ignacio area. “We need to be heard. Cattle ranchers are a small number of people, but we feed the world.”
Other members of the panel included Trent Taylor of Blue Horizon Farms, who farms on the Dryside; Maria Baker, a member of a Southern Ute ranching family; Steve Harris of Harris Water Engineering; and Darrin Parmenter, the Colorado State University Extension agent for La Plata County. Marsha Porter-Norton, who grew up in a ranching family north of Cortez, served as moderator.
“I took a walk this morning around town and saw how dry people’s yards were,” Porter-Norton said. “I thought, if it’s this dry in town, what must it be like out on the ranches?”
The idea for the panel came out of a national study the League did, said Marilyn Brown, the local chapter’s secretary and a member of the committee that’s been studying the local agricultural sector with an eye on public policy.
“There are a lot of issues coming up now,” she said, “including (genetically modified organisms), pesticides, herbicides, agricultural water pollution, antibiotics in meat ... We organized this panel for our community, including our committee, to get more knowledge.”
Harris gave a lesson about how water works in La Plata County, from the natural average runoff of about 950,000 acre-feet a year (an acre-foot is enough water to cover an acre in 1 foot of water, or 325,851 gallons). Almost two-thirds, 600,000 acre-feet, comes down the Animas River, with the Pine River drainage accounting for another 230,000 acre-feet.
“There’s not a lot of irrigation on the Dryside, barely enough water to get a whiff,” he said about the La Plata River, which in good years is good for about only 30,000 acre-feet. “We might as well call it La Plata Creek instead of La Plata River, and half of what’s there has to go to New Mexico.”
All domestic use, including wells, is “insignificant,” he said, about 10,000 acre-feet.
Ranchers and farmers actually have been fighting drought conditions for more than a decade. Baker talked about how the tribe, which grants grazing units to the four or five full-time ranchers in the tribe, declared a complete moratorium on grazing units for five years starting in 2000 and still limits time or location on the ones it grants.
After taking everyone through a short history of farming and ranching in the southwest corner of the county, Taylor summed up the situation: “It’s a harsh area. Old-timers used to say it was nine months of winter and three months of drought.
“The spread of perennial and noxious weeds, particularly field bindweed, is affecting pretty much every field.
“Prairie dogs attack not only crops, but pasture.
“With droughts, I’m a big believer in cycles, but this is a long one.
“Costs keep increasing, but commodities prices don’t. Thirty years ago, you could buy a good tractor for about $3,000. Now that’s what it costs to get one to mow your lawn. Wheat cost the same in the 1970s as it did in the 1950s.
“We have to truck our products long distances. In the 1970s, we sold everything locally.”
Taylor didn’t encourage his children to go into the agriculture business.
“Not a lot of people are willing to work so hard for so little in something that’s so uncertain, between the markets, the weather and government regulations,” he said.
David James of James Ranch said people like to know where their food comes from and will support local agriculture when they know more about it.
“School District 9-R probably has one of the best farm-to-school programs in the nation,” Parmenter said. “On those two days a week or so when they serve a farm-to-local menu, the sales of hot lunches go up about 50 percent. It’s so important to get to these kids because they have big voices with their families.”