By CAROL MCKINLEY, The Denver Gazette
TOWAOC, Colo. (AP) – Drought across much of the West, 22 years in a row, has struck the Four Corners tribal lands of Colorado with bitter force. This year, Ute Mountain’s famed 7,700-acre farm and ranch had to lay off half of its workers while thousands of acres lay fallow.
The devastating loss of water meant that Ute Mountain Ute’s farm and ranch were only able to plant 2,500 acres of corn, a tenth of the 25,000 acres they planted in the wettest years, reports the Denver Gazette.
The Farm and Ranch is the crown jewel of the Utes, a tribal success story that over sixty years ago saw native farmers turn miles of barren land into fields of green alfalfa and corn. In addition to the farm project, 700 cattle roam the land, descendants of the original herd brought here in 1962. In winter, they drink what remains of the water that was used for crops, stored in a gleaming channel and watched as fiercely as liquid gold.
The operation of the farm and ranch is state of the art. House-sized fertilizer applicators are controlled by satellites. Miles of water pipes feed the center’s irrigation hubs.
This year, due to water scarcity, only 8 of the farm’s 110 pivots were needed, with the rest perched flat and spider-shaped on the dry fields.
The water for the Ute Ute Tribal Land mountain comes from the snow on the peaks of San Juans, which melts in the spring and flows into the Dolores River. Some of the water ends up in Colorado’s second largest reservoir, the McPhee, which has hardly been built.
The Dolores Project was on the chopping block, on a list of western water projects to be scrapped by President Jimmy Carter in the 1970s. However, the Ute Mountain Ute tribe was entitled to superior water rights. following a 1908 Supreme Court decision in Winters v. United States.
While the tribe had these rights, it had historically had difficulty accessing water.
Recognizing that the Dolores Project offered perhaps the only possible alternative water supply for the reserve, the administration ultimately agreed to provide funding for the Dolores Project in accordance with the Ute Indian Water Rights Settlement to satisfy the rights. water resources held by the tribe, “wrote the Eric Sprague, engineer for the Dolores Water Conservancy District, adding that in 1987 the Colorado Ute Indian Water Rights Settlement Act allowed the Ute Mountain Ute tribe to build a 39.9 mile canal, which ends at Farm and Ranch but serves hundreds of thirsty fields along the way.
This year, the region’s water bodies reduced the water allocation to all full-service farmers, including Ute Mountain Ute, to a paltry 10%.
“They fight as badly as we do,” said breeder Zane Odell, who runs his own cattle farm on federal land on the outskirts of Cortez. Like all farmers and ranchers in the ditch, Odell knows that without the late intervention of the federal government, there would be no irrigation system for anyone. “Everyone rides on the backs of these natives. Settlement was the only way for us to get help.
On a cloudless November day, farmers weeded and irrigation crews serviced sprinklers as crows watched from two of the three empty silos.
“The crows are survivors,” said farm manager Simon Martinez. “They survive and we will survive. “
March marked Martinez’s 30th year by helping realize the tribe’s vision for Ute Mountain Ute Farm and Ranch. This year has been a mixture of blessings and curses.
The drought led to layoffs, but the corn product is booming online under the ‘Bow and Arrow’ brand. Even though they are sister farms, Bow and Arrow pays the farm and ranch for the corn they use to make a variety of products from polenta to grain for livestock. Colorado companies use Bow and Arrow corn for tortillas, potato chips, and moonlight.
It’s no surprise that local distilleries have discovered Bow and Arrrow’s gluten-free and non-GMO product, including Broomfield’s Whistle and Hare, Durango Craft Spirits and Snitching Lady Distillery, which makes a 100% blue corn whiskey called ‘Button’s. Blue Corn ”, named after the owner’s cat.
The Blue Corn Bow and Arrow was the catalyst for Snitching Lady’s recent notoriety. Button’s Blue Corn has won several awards including Best American Whiskey at the 2020 World Whiskey Awards. “Blue corn gives it a taste of caramel. It’s special because we’re higher and the boiling point is 165 degrees versus 220 degrees, ”says Thomas Williams, owner of Snitching Lady, who first met Simon Martinez in a Walmart parking lot. before opening his distillery in 2017. Williams’ secret ingredient, blue corn, lacks the sour taste found in yellow and white corn. American Whiskey Magazine said it tasted like “sweet corn pudding and sugar cookie.”
“The best whiskey is no longer from Kentucky. It’s now from Colorado, ”said Kerby Lanier, bartender at Snitching Lady, who recommended Button’s Blue for an old-fashioned cocktail. “It comes in the form of cracked blue corn and when we start the fermentation it turns purple and when we put it in the still it turns bright pink. “
The end product is a caramel color.
Martinez said despite low corn production from the drought, a recent week has been the busiest in Bow and Arrow history. “Loads are leaking everywhere,” he said, as he maneuvered his truck over the potholes of hard earth on the way to the farm property.
After a long night of grinding blue, white and yellow corn into a fine flour, eight employees had returned to the mill at dawn to load the fifty pound bags onto semi-trailers bound for the mill. Western Foods of Pine Bluff, Arkansas, 1,200 miles away. Half a dozen other trucks were on the program for the day.
Most of the farm and ranch workforce is tribal and lives in Towaoc, the seat of Mount Ute Ute nestled at the foot of Mount Sleeping Ute. In addition to farm and ranch work, jobs on tribal lands can be found at Ute Mountain Ute Casino, in construction, or in health care. Yet unemployment among the 2,000 tribe members is an 80% punishment.
Due to the drought, the coveted positions on the farm and ranch have dropped from nearly 40 to 15.
The Ute culture doesn’t care to blame Mother Nature for the hardships of the drought.
“It will be good once again. We cannot change Mother Nature. You can’t force it, ”said Lamar Fields, a miller who teaches his three-year-old son Trayvon to pray for rain.
“I’ll give you some history,” says Fields, sharing the story of his recent release from prison. He is grateful for the opportunity to get in shape. “I intend to continue doing what I’m doing here. I want to ensure the success of the business, ”says Fields. “It’s a little difficult. We used to see acres of corn growing. Hay. All green and now it’s just naked. Everything is dirt.
This is a fact illustrated by a color map in the lobby of the administration building at Ute Farm and Ranch. It shows a depressing before and after image: In 2020, the blue, red and green dots illustrate that 47 of the 25,000 acres of fields have been planted with corn and hay, made with the help of transfer water from the rugged McPhee Reservoir 2019. But there was no more water this year. Most of these dots on the map are gray, with colored dots greatly reduced to the tiny 2,500 acre area.
General Manager Simon Martinez has managed to rotate workers wherever there is work to be done. “One of them is a tractor mechanic today, but he might be working on the nozzles tomorrow,” Martinez said as he passed huge farm machinery as green as the fields once were.
Despite a dismal 2021, the Farm and Ranch operation is a wonder for a group of wide-eyed master’s students at Western Colorado University. They piled out of a dusty van to hear about the farm’s unusual irrigation process, which does not use electricity.
“The water is carried along the Towaoc Highline Canal by gravity flow,” said irrigation manager Michael Vicenti, a solemn Mountain Ute with blue-black hair, his hands in his pockets to protect himself from the cold. morning. “Until the very last nozzle.”
Last year, it took eight people in two-person shifts to keep the equipment running. This year with so little water, three people took care of the work.
One of the students is a Nigerian who recorded the tour on her cell phone. “I hope to (bring) what I’m learning about farming in the United States to my country,” said Yetunde Rotimi. Farmers in northern Nigeria are struggling to maintain rice cultivation amid drought and periods of flooding, she said.
“The more you know, the more you can apply,” said student Matthew Merritt, hopping in the van for the trip home. He believes the solution to the West’s drought problems involves a difficult conversation about whether the dwindling water supply is sustainable for so many farms and ranches across the West.
The view from the edge of the Farm and Ranch property is an endless expanse of mountain desert land where four states meet: Colorado, Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico, from which Ship Rock rises from the horizon surrounded by kilometers of flat land. When Martinez wondered whether he should move out of Ute Mountain Ute Farm and Ranch after two years of inferior management, he considered this landscape and its people.
His answer came with the breeze.
“I was driving and I heard the beating of wings. Then a huge eagle flew past me and landed on a pole. I told him ‘I heard you before I saw you,’ ”Martinez told The Gazette.
Office manager Nichole Cisneros-Weeks says that in Ute Mountain Ute culture, the eagle is a sign that a person is on the right track.
Martinez does not regret looking back on thirty years of challenges battling politics and drought. Especially this year.
“We’ll see what spring brings and be ready for whatever Mother Nature has in store for us. “
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