Persistent drought forces Alamosa farmer to adapt

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ALAMOSA COUNTY, Colo. — As farmers begin the harvest season in the San Luis Valley, another summer filled with drought is feeling its effects.

Dry drainage ditches, retention ponds, and recharging ponds lay dry in the hot, smoky, end of season sun.

“In the 90’s it was pretty good. The water table was at a good, sustainable level and it did very well,”  Miguel Diaz recalled. “But now that the droughts have come through, it is a concern.”

Diaz is one of the owners of Martinez Farms, named for his maternal grandfather who started it in the late 1940s. He remembers the valley’s aquifers.

He described it as two parts, a bottom layer and a top, the latter of which he says is drying out because of a lack of snowmelt. The retention ponds have appeared in the last two decades as farmers and ranchers try to recharge them early in the season in an effort to stave off the July and August heat.

“Water is a valuable resource, it’s a much-needed resource, and there’s only so much that we can use so we’re having to innovate and do things differently,” Diaz said.

He’s experimenting with potatoes with shorter growing seasons, trying different soils and considering other crops, like quinoa, that use less water to adapt. It’s a way to buffer some of the financial pain felt in dryer years.

“Wherever the market goes, it’s ups and downs, as growers, we ride that out,” Diaz said. “On those good years we have to save and then on the low years, we kind of have to dip into the reserves and be mindful of what we’re doing. It’s budgeting very carefully.”

Diaz says the early season snowfall through late 2019 and early 2020 gave him hope for a better year. The warm spring and hot summer evaporated that hope. Still, his farm is harvesting around 800,000 pounds of potatos each day during the harvest for grocery stores, scraping up several thousands of acres of barley for Coors and putting food on his own table.

“We’re at mother nature’s mercy so we risk a lot,” Diaz explained. “Mother nature has been good and she puts us in our place for some years.”

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