Moral questions on a standard San Luis Valley farm
MONTE VISTA, Colo. — A self-described Midwest import from Missouri, 39-year old Kyler Brown is a cowboy, farmer and philosopher. These days, he feels driven by questions of life and death.
“Do people feel like they have morality in their occupation? I think people have moral moments, but probably most people don’t question the morality of their profession. And I feel like I come in contact with mine almost daily,” he said, driving over the Rio Grande outside of Monte Vista, Colorado.
“I see life and death a lot. I got to see baby calves get born in the spring. And then I had to put a cow down” he said. “I see whole cottonwood galleries dying. I just feel my morality is being challenged every day, where other people go through their life and don’t question it.”
Brown lives on his farm in Del Norte with wife Emily, and two kids — Elijah and Olivia.
He also works his father-in-law’s farm just outside of Monte Vista. It’s a small operation — two circles of russet potatoes, another two circles of barley and a small herd of cattle.
“A standard San Luis Valley farm,” Brown said, piling pivot sprinkler supplies into the back of a battered white truck. “I’m kind of slowly dragging him towards something different.”
Some of those changes included using a new fungal compost to improve soil health, building 21 pastures on a 600-acre lot to prevent overgrazing — and determining that this will be the last season for growing barley for Coors beer.
Still, the drought creeps in, ruining best-laid practices. No clover grows in the meadow cultivated for cattle. In early summer, there wasn’t enough rain to grow forage.
Brown credits the institutional knowledge of his in-laws, but also their very senior water rights, for the farm’s endurance. In recent years, there’s a stark visual divide drawn by water rights, he said, watching some neighbors’ fields “grow green, the literal color of money,” while others wither.
A few years before, Brown had an epiphany, realizing his generation “would have to bear the brunt of climate change” and needed to be in the room when tough decisions are made.
He slowly entered the fray, sitting on the board for a nonprofit conservancy district, meeting with state and national lawmakers as chapter president of the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union.
The conversations have often focused on an urban-rural divide, he said, which ignores a crucial interconnectedness.
“We give them a host of things: food, asphalt for roads, clean air, water, places to recreate. And they give us a tax base, so that we can have police departments, fire stations and school districts,” he said. “We need each other. It is a Faustian bargain, but we both need each other.”
A ballooning population
Growth in Denver and the surrounding metropolitan areas caused tension across the state, including a decades-long effort to build a 200-mile pipeline to pump San Luis water for residential use in Douglas County.
Opposing water exportation, Brown said, rallies the valley and is “fighting the good fight,” but may pull attention away from other threats bearing down on the region.
“But it also does a good job of distracting us from us being our own enemy,” he said. “Our pumping, our management of water, our management of our land and climate change will have far greater impacts on our valley and our water than an exportation scheme.”
He’s worried about the “tremendous cultural and economic implications” of determining who will have to fallow land — or stop farming altogether in future years as the aquifers and Rio Grande shrink more.
Brown turns the truck into a barley circle, parallel to the pivot sprinkler, green stems and spikes rustling in the summer wind. Grabbing the stepladder from the back of the truck, he acknowledges that the politics feel fraught and toxic, and the solutions aren’t easy.
He describes listening to a public meeting back in April from the irrigation district as he was simultaneously fixing yet another pivot sprinkler, Zoom playing on his speakerphone. An early snowmelt at the headwaters of the Rio Grande meant managers had to scramble to provide water for the upcoming growing season. With an earlier snowmelt, there may not be enough river water for irrigation when crops need it most.
“I could just tell that this is just the beginning of folks trying to figure out how to do the same thing with far less resources — and being very, very frustrated at their capabilities, their power, or more importantly, their options,” he said.
Not only is the source of the river sometimes melting early as seasons change, snowmelt also doesn’t result in as much water in a hotter, drier climate thanks to global warming. “You’re literally trying to move the days of a calendar year, which does nothing to make you have more water,” Brown said.
Sprinkler repaired, he drives out of the barley circle, down the highway to another parcel which he calls “just a little nature preserve on the river.”
What once was a gravel pit has been transformed into habitat on the edge of the Rio Grande, with a pond for waterfowl. Bald eagles and owls roost in the trees at its edge. It’s a place for mule deer to gather, too. Another resident, a groundhog, Brown nicknamed “Larry the whistlepig.”
This haven offers both solace and grief.
Sitting back in the truck, as the river chuckles by, Brown said he senses there’s been a reckoning, even if just a small one, over the impacts of climate change in the valley.
“People are really saying ‘Wow, it’s the driest it’s ever been,’ or ‘Man, another bad fire year.’ So they’re seeing the symptoms of the disease,” he said. “And you don’t have to name the disease in order for people to be feeling it intimately.”
Will it be enough?
For water managers, naming the problem offers more clarity for solutions.
“This is no longer drought. This is aridification,” said Cleave Simpson Jr., a longtime Republican state senator and manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, living outside Alamosa, Colorado.
Drastic river patterns the last two decades and mostly below average flows — plus two of the worst drought events in recorded history in 2022 and 2018 — are harbingers of the permanent change to agriculture and ways of life in the valley, Simpson said.
“Ultimately, there’s going to be less irrigation,” he said. “If we’re thoughtful, that’ll be a managed, incremental change, versus if we’re not engaged.”
Simpson said it takes both collective decision making from individuals and institutions to build resilience.
“Look, I raise alfalfa, the most water-consumptive use crop we have here,” Simpson said. “How do I figure out how to raise something else here?”
He and his son raised hemp for fiber, and they found it only consumed half the water compared to the alfalfa crop.
“I have a 31-year-old son and a 2-year-old grandson,” he explained. “I’m very mindful about being in that space to set this place up for success for being resilient and being able to respond when these water supplies continue to dwindle.”
Being more efficient, growing crops that require less irrigation — those are just the first steps in finding alternatives to help the community long-term in the valley.
“It’s worth fighting for,” Simpson said.
This project was funded by a grant from the Water Desk and by States Newsroom, a network of nonprofit news organizations and home to Source NM.