TOWAOC – From behind the wheel of a Ford pickup, Michael Vicenti traverses a network of dusty roads that snake around the circular fields on Ute Mountain Ute Farm and Ranch, rattling off numbers.
The irrigation manager of the 7,700-acre farm can recite exactly how many pounds per square inch of pressure his outflow pipes are under, and how much water any given field – whether it bears bursting dark green corn stalks or undulating amber stands of wheat – will receive in the next hour.
When Vicenti turns toward field No. 2180, the condition of the road deteriorates and his knowledge of the plot before him starts and ends with water. He can’t tell the two crops planted there apart, he said.
The field was planted for the first time in four years last month because the farm lacked adequate water to irrigate it until this spring.
Now, among abundant patches of weeds, tender seedlings are sprouting in neat rows.
Half the field, just 23 acres, is planted with sainfoin, a forage legume for animals. The other half bears Kernza, the trademark name of an intermediate perennial wheatgrass developed by the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas.
Those delicate sprouts are an experiment on every level, says the farm’s general manager, Simon Martinez. But they hold the promise of water reduction, increased drought resiliency, and the opportunity to be on the cutting edge of adaptation to the changing climate.
With the farm’s full water allocation – 24,500 acre-feet – flowing down the canal from McPhee Reservoir, this year was the time to test out these two new drought-resistant crops.
Martinez is no rookie when it comes to facing off with the challenges of farming in the desert. In 2021, he had to lay off 20 people, half his staff, because of drought conditions that cut the farm’s water allocation by 90%.
The farm employs primarily tribal members and is critical to the stability and future food security of the tribe, said Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Chairman Manuel Heart.
“It’s crazy to look at a map (from) last year with over 6,000 acres of fallow ground and then to see color,” Martinez said, pointing to a copy of the crop plan on his desk.
Each field is color-coded by crop. This year, only 910 acres are fallow.
The farm has 783 acres of alfalfa, fresh in the ground, which will produce a premium product.
Thousands of acres of wheat fields stand ready for cutting; knee-high stalks of blue and yellow will eventually supply raw material to the on-site mill, which produces non-GMO gluten-free cornmeal for the Bow and Arrow brand.
The farm also supports a 700 cow-calf herd, which make a small dent – roughly 10% – in the alfalfa cash crop.
But not every year brings ample snowfall to the peaks above McPhee, and as the Colorado River basin charges through year 23 of a historic megadrought, Martinez is starting to tinker Kernza and sainfoin as possible resilient alternatives to alfalfa and wheat.
The experiment is just one step of several the farm has taken.
Outside grants have helped fund micro-hydroelectric units, which harness the power of the irrigation canal’s natural downhill flow. The farm was also outfitted with new nozzles on its center pivots that reduce water delivery from 8.2 gallons per minute to 7.5.
Corn, for example, is watered in a pattern of three days on, two days off. By reducing the flows from each nozzle by 0.7 gallons per minute, Martinez said the farm is saving thousands of gallons of water across the farm.
Although it cannot be attribute only to the water-saving nozzles, Vicenti and Martinez estimate the farm will use only 80% of its allocated water this year, leaving roughly 4,900 acre-feet in McPhee.
These efforts are both a critical, but relatively young enterprise for the Ute people, who have resided in this region for many centuries.
“We've never, as Ute people, never been farmers,” Chairman Heart said. “We were put into the position of becoming ranchers and farmers in the 1800s (after) what happened up in Meeker and as a Ute people in general. … It’s (Farm and Ranch) trying to do what we can in this arid soil reservation that we've been put in.”
The new, lower-flow nozzles still leave an unknown with respect to crop yields – but the Kernza and sainfoin crops have yielded only questions in the month and half since they went into the ground.
“This is brand, brand-new for me,” said Vaughn Cook, a former manager of the farm who occasionally consults for the enterprise.
Cook returned to the farm in May to seed field No. 2180 with the experimental crops. He said he was unsure of everything, from how much seed to put in the ground to planting depth, given the lack of research into growing the Kernza in this region.
The crop was developed over the last 20 years and has been lauded for its sustainability. Unlike most wheat, Kernza is perennial and is better for the soil because it can live for many years.
By late June, small sprouts had just become visible in the field.
Kernza is projected to use about 30% less water than alfalfa, a crop that gulps up 37% of all the water used from the Colorado River basin in a given year, according to a 2020 study published by Nature Sustainability. Kernza is unlikely to fully replace alfalfa, which has a long season and can yield multiple cuttings (which contributes to both its high water consumption as well as it’s profitability).
Martinez said Farm and Ranch has no intention of replacing alfalfa with Kernza entirely.
“Our hope is to utilize this product to use less water and to offset some costs of feed alfalfa that go to the Bow and Arrow herd – to be able to sell that outright and use this for a feed purpose for the cattle operation,” he said.
In years when water does not flow, the Kernza could make an even bigger impact in the farm’s bottom line.
“That's where maybe the biggest water savings is in these years (when) we have minimal water – you may get some kind of a crop with very little water application,” Cook said.
The grain has also gained attention as a sustainable alternative in beer, whiskey and bread production, but its viability as forage for cattle remains the largest mystery. Anecdotally, ranchers around the country have noted that cattle enjoy both Kernza and sainfoin.
The latter is valued as forage for its no-bloat properties, decent nutritional value and enormous water savings – 50% compared with alfalfa.
If all goes well, Martinez said he plans to ramp up Kernza planting from 23 acres to 150 or 200 acres (still small-scale compared to the 1,500 acres of alfalfa on the farm). But Kernza’s slow progress to poke through the ground has had him anxiously waiting.
The Colorado State University’s Agricultural Experiment Station is testing Kernza’s viability in a variety of conditions in Colorado. Katie Russell, the manager and research scientist at the Southwestern Colorado Research Center north of Cortez, has 5 acres of both Kernza and sainfoin.
She said the crops appear to do well in the region, in spite of the last few years of drought.
“I think it has a lot of potential,” Russell said.
Russell is pleased to see large enterprises such as Farm and Ranch making forays into this new field. She said it is great to have producer buy-in, especially one with the stature of the Ute’s enterprise.
“Between a forage or a grain crop, I think it has a lot more tried and true potential,” she said of Kernza, comparing it to other exploratory crops that have slumped.
Of the Ute Mountain Ute’s 7,700 acres of farmland, a 46-acre experimental test-plot is a small investment. But it is nonetheless an investment in a more sustainable future – one in which an ample water supply is all but certain.
Martinez, unwilling to count seeds before they’ve sprouted, is more matter-of-fact about the experiment.
“Kernza is just something we've decided to utilize because it was available and we would like to be on that cutting edge,” he said.