Water and Agriculture
Local farmers grow…
Potatoes, helping make the San Luis Valley the 2nd largest potato growing region in the U.S.
Barley, for Molson-Coors and other craft brewers
Alfalfa, the area’s largest crop sought after for its high nutrition content
Colorado-grown produce keeps food supplies closer to home, and therefore more secure. Agriculture is an important part of Colorado’s economy, contributing $40 billion annually and 173,000 jobs.
Farming's Long Legacy
Hispanics from northern New Mexico began farming in the south end of the Valley in the 1850s. European settlers followed in the early 1860s. Those first settlers raised the crops still grown today; those suitable for the high altitude and little natural precipitation.
The railroad’s arrival in 1878 connected farmers to larger markets. They then built irrigation canals and dug wells to tap the groundwater. Because of irrigation, the number of farmed acres peaked at 779,671 acres in 1927. Today there are approximately 500,000 acres of irrigated land.
The Valley’s Economic Engine
The roughly 1,600 farms and ranches in the Valley accounted for $369.7 million market value of products sold in 2017. Agriculture is the largest private employer in the San Luis Valley, providing 16.6 percent of all jobs. Four different agricultural sectors rank among the top ten sectors for economic output in the Valley:
The impacts of irrigated agriculture ripple out across the Valley beyond farmers and ranchers. Every aspect of the economy is tied to agriculture. The agricultural economy is what fuels our cities and towns and support businesses. Increased crops sales translate to more jobs. For example, every $1 million of potato sales is the equivalent of 10.4 full-time jobs.
Ag’s Reliance on Water
None of the region’s current crops could be grown if growers depended only on the 7.5 inches of annual precipitation that hits the Valley floor. The Valley is one of the world’s largest, high altitude deserts. Peak flows that are common in May and June dry up by July and August. Given the lack of reservoir storage in the region, growers turned to groundwater to finish watering their crops.
Irrigators have long pushed for more efficient water use, and some practices used today include:
Using irrigation techniques that use less water.
The use of cover and green manure crops (plants that are grown to cover or be turned into the soil to help manage soil erosion and improve soil health, rather than being harvested for a profit).
Growing crops that use less water.
Applying water during drought-sensitive growth stages of a crop and limiting irrigation outside these periods.
Incentivizing farmers to reduce water use at times.