By Rachel Turiel,
First, forget everything you know about farming in the Southwest. Pull up the black snaking lines of your irrigation system – the ones you know to be the very circulatory system of your garden. Next, shelve the gardening books, including those that tantalizingly promise you can grow more vegetables on less land, in less time, with less money. The knowledge you need is passed from grandfather to father to son, accumulated like one’s very DNA. Abandon fertilizers, whether they’re sourced from a bag, your neighbor’s cows, or the compost pile you tend with maternal love.
Finally, pray for moisture, for the deep white blanket of winter snowpack, for the gentle fingers of spring rain massaging deep into the earth, and for late-summer clouds that rove the sky menacingly, ambushing the land with water before evaporating back into the clear blue.
Now, maybe, just maybe, you are cut out to be a dryland bean farmer.
If you live in the bustling city of Durango, the hip hamlet of Telluride, or even bitty Mancos, where ag and art meet at the 21st century altar of mixed marriages, you may notice that Dove Creek, Colorado, has followed a different trajectory.
You will not find a microbrewery in Dove Creek; there is no yoga studio, mountain bike shop, or sushi fusion joint. And, while many of us here in the San Juans preach a loud and passionate sermon from our local-foods throne, the residents of Dove Creek – who in a 2004 survey named “freedom” as one of the highest community attributes – have been quietly growing one of the most important food crops for the past century.
Dove Creek, self-proclaimed Pinto Bean Capital of the World, contains the carpet of farmland rolled out flat from the mountain ranges of the La Platas, the Sleeping Ute, and the Abajos. A metal bean silo rises over Highway 491 like the region’s own economic, religious and cultural icon. The bean fields, made of a red, sandy loam blown in from Utah’s Monument Valley containing “12 feet of friable, rockless soil,” according to bean farmer Dan Warren, are sliced by deep gashes of red-rock canyon. The entire region once housed the original masters of dryland agriculture, the Anasazi, for whom beans were a staple crop.
Meet Richard Knuckles. He’s a third-generation Dove Creek dryland bean farmer, “on his own” since 1971. Knuckles lives with his wife, Pat, in a spic ’n’ span ranch house, and farms up to 1000 acres of beans. He speaks a reverent farmer vernacular that requires a well-tuned ear to follow. “I just like to see stuff grow; be outdoors,” he says by way of career explanation. His beefy hands look out of place indoors and idle on a February afternoon. Overalls stretch across the bridge of his belly and his eyes are warm and twinkly, even as he describes his summer farming schedule: 10-16 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Outside of, say, the Costa Rica rainforest, how does one grow thousands of acres of food without irrigation?
In Dove Creek, early June, the sun asserting dominance and frost-danger mostly in retreat, the dryland farmer plunges the bean (which is a seed itself) into the top layer of existing soil moisture. On an average year, this bean seed will sit 5 to 7 inches below the soil surface. How do you determine soil moisture? “Oh, you just dig,” says Knuckles.
Under the influence of subterranean warmth and moisture, the seed coat cracks open and a white root wriggles down into the reservoir of moisture below, which on an average year is a cool 3 to 4 feet. Next, the plant sends the brave sentry of stem up through a half-foot of soil, searching for the light. The seed leaves unfurl in the vegetal yoga pose: pinto sun salute. The first hurdle is over.
Summer dawns. Heat pours. The bean plants continue to grow, leafing, branching, vining, drawing from the deep savings account of moisture. While every other farmer is fiddling with ditches and irrigation pipe, the dryland bean farmer waits, perhaps in prayer-like posture, for the summer monsoons.
“A good winter takes you through the third week in July,” Knuckles says. After that, the late summer monsoons are essential for the bean plants to flower and set seed.
“You gotta be a kind of a gambler,” admits Mike Coffey, another longtime bean farmer, who grows pintos, Anasazi, bolitas, Zuni gold, mortgage lifters, blacks and cannellinis on 1200 to 1400 acres. There are always surprises: promising winters followed by a fizzling monsoon season, or the reverse. Coffey’s worst year was 1996. His best? 1997.
Growing dryland beans is a clever business. Farmers can easily save their own seed. There are no costs in irrigation equipment, labor, or the water itself. Dry beans store and ship well. And, bonus: the bean plant, in the legume family, creates its own fertility via bacteria that attach to legume roots and convert airborne nitrogen to a usable form for the plant. When the beans are harvested, stalks left on the soil surface add nitrogen, an essential plant nutrient, to the soil. This is one reason most dryland bean farmers don’t use fertilizer. Other reasons: adding fertilizer to dry ground burns plants, farmers rotate beans with winter wheat (the stubble of which, left on the fields after harvest, adds nutrients), and many Dove Creek bean farmers are certified organic and can’t use typically available fertilizers.
And yet, this clever business may be a dying business. “When I was a kid, there was a farmer on every 320 acres,” Dan Warren says. Warren is a third generation dryland bean farmer with 3000 acres. Now, most farmers operate at least 1000 acres to make a modest living. Rhonda Waschke, who farms with her husband, Billy, remembers when harvesting four to five 100-pound sacks of beans per acre used to indicate a poor year. “Now you get that, you think you’re in heaven.”
What has changed in Dove Creek is precisely the most critical component of dryland bean farming: natural moisture. Never a Mecca of precipitation, the average totaling just 15 inches per year (“enough to make a pretty good bean crop” says Warren), things seem to be drying out.
Warren remembers “always getting tractors stuck in wet soil.” He adds, “There’s none of that now.” Conditions were “real favorable” when Mike Coffey started farming 50 years ago at age 14 with his father, and though “this country is naturally subject to horrific droughts, there’s been a lot more dry years since the mid ‘90s.” Richard Knuckles notes that “the last 8 or 10 years have been pretty dry,” which Rhonda Waschke shrugs off as “just a cycle.”
Whether it’s permanent climate change, natural vagaries of high desert weather, or a latent curse of the Anasazi, times are changing for the dryland bean farmer. “You don’t like to admit it, but it’s happening,” Dan Warren remarks. Some farmers are finding auxiliary or permanent work in Cortez or elsewhere, and many have already replaced bean acreage with dryland sunflowers, more drought-resistant than beans, though they take a bigger toll on the soil.
Denise Pribble, owner of Adobe Milling (which stores, packages and ships literal tons of Dove Creek beans), sees larger threats than a few drought years to the livelihood of the dryland bean farmer. She cites new business-hurting tax laws, as well as the next generation “getting a little education and not wanting to work in a field they can’t control.”
Despite the jingle about beans being a musical fruit that children (and husbands) like to recite during a burrito dinner, beans are a knock-out punch of nutrition. There is no cheaper protein, plus a whopping delivery of fiber, folate, iron, magnesium, potassium. (Pintos are currently $65 for 100 pounds at Adobe Milling in Dove Creek. At Durango Natural Foods, 10 pounds of organic Dove Creek pintos are $16.63.)
Even after decades in the business, beans are still a staple meal of the Dove Creek bean farmer. The consensus: drop a ham hock and a sprinkle of salt in a pressure cooker and cook until beans are buttery soft (approximately 45 to 60 minutes). Soaking dry beans for 1 to 3 days, changing the water daily, eliminates much of the music-making oligosaccharides (teach your kids that word) in the seed coat.
Richard Knuckles’ wife, Pat, tells about the year of the bean-fest, when her husband explained that he didn’t think he was going to sell many beans. “‘We’re gonna have to start eating them’ he told me. So, we made pinto bread, pinto pizza, pinto everything,” she laughs, offering the recipe for pinto pizza, which was tasty enough to secure a permanent place in the Knuckles’ menu rotation.
Now, April: the snow – what little there was of it – is disappearing fast. The Animas River running through Durango is gaunt, skeletal rocks protruding above the surface. It’s like a bad sequel to last year’s snowpack story, only worse. Drought classification across 89% of Colorado is “severe;” Dolores County (of which Dove Creek is county seat) fares slightly better at “moderate.”
What do the bean farmers think about the current state of soil moisture? If they opt not to plant beans they can collect insurance, to which no bean farmer is a stranger, though it only covers partial expenses, with no expected profit.
“Oh, I’m gonna plant some beans,” Mike Coffey states with decisive and heroic hopefulness. He adds, “Maybe less acres than normal, but you got to work with what you got.” Dan Warren echoes this sentiment, “we’ve got about 2 1/2 feet of soil moisture now…kind of iffy, but if you don’t plant beans, you won’t harvest any beans.”
Richard Knuckles’ recent soil probe showed 2 feet of moisture. “You need a foot of good, wet moisture at planting time to get the beans up,” he says. That extra foot could easily evaporate, or possibly grow, by June, depending on spring rain and wind conditions. “It’s not an exact science; we’ll watch and see,” Dan Warren says, which seems to be the banner under which dryland bean farming exists.
Go to The Blue Mountain Café in downtown Dove Creek sometime in late May, where farmers congregate, and where Dan Warren says, “you look for a familiar truck and get a little BS with your coffee,” and the rest of the story will come clear. What is clear now is that these dryland bean farmers are champions of working within the constraints and gifts of nature. Bean farmers produce some of the highest-calorie and most-storable protein per acre in Colorado, a task which deserves attention and respect. And when you listen between the lines, a deep, reverent love for their work and land rises to the surface.
“I done it for a long time. I hope to do it for a while yet,” says Mike Coffey, his words ringing like a bell of hopefulness.