As I feast my eyes on seed catalogues and eagerly await planting season, I'm thankful to live in rural Western Colorado, where agriculture still thrives and the sight of new calves and lambs brings joy to all who see them. But I have seen what happens when agricultural land is taken out of production. In my case, it was in Albuquerque's North Valley area, on the banks of the Rio Grande. When irrigation ditches that had run for a hundred years or more were cut off, the soul of a neighborhood evaporated right along with the water. After that, maximum build-out became inevitable.
Our beautiful green valleys wouldn't be so beautiful if they weren't irrigated. To some it may appear that the ditch system is some kind of public resource, but it's not. All the water in those ditches is legally owned, and our downstream neighbors would like to be the ones who own it. Landowners who don't keep their land in production can lose their water rights. The long-time ranchers know this well, but I wonder if newer landowners realize how vulnerable they could be.
The best way to keep the valleys green and protect our watersheds? Grow stuff! The buzzword is "beneficial use." If you can't demonstrate a beneficial use for your water rights (lawns don't count, but golf courses do), then they could be taken away from you.
What can you do with the stuff you grow? I can attest that even a small amount of food production and storage can make a noticeable dent in your grocery bill. But beyond that, our area is blessed with brick-and-mortar grocery stores that are willing to carry local products (check on their requirements), and also with a growing number of seasonal farmers markets. Find a need that isn't fully being filled, and fill it. The time is right. For a number of reasons, people are more willing to support local agriculture than they have been for the last fifty years or so.
The CSU Extension Service has lots of excellent information about how to get the most from your land and find markets for what you produce. Watch for Extension Service food preservation classes to be held in our county this summer. The Colorado Department of Agriculture has block grants available to encourage Colorado specialty crops, and specialty crops can bring relatively high prices when matched with the right "niche" markets.
There's no reason why our valleys have to succumb to the fate of Albuquerque's middle Rio Grande Valley, or California's San Fernando Valley. The land is still open, the water still runs in the ditches, and the know-how is still available. Ours can be a brighter story, if we want it to be.
– Jane Bennett, Ridgway