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In this month’s issue

Agriculture on the edge: Drought is rattling Southwest Colorado’s dryland farmers

By Ole Bye

“Beans don’t ask for much,” muses Denise Pribble, in between selling small souvenir bags of pinto beans to the occasional curious tourist. She owns Adobe Milling, one of three bean elevator companies in Dove Creek.

The town bills itself as the “Pinto Bean Capital of the World,” but the proclamation doesn’t attract many tourists – farming is still the primary economic driver here. In a typical year, Pribble will take in 3 million pounds of pinto beans grown without irrigation water – dryland beans.

A tractor with cultivators sits in a Dove Creek beanfield, where it was last parked — before drought destroyed most dryland crops across the region.

A tractor with cultivators sits in a Dove Creek beanfield, where it was last parked — before drought destroyed most dryland crops across the region. Photo by Ole Bye.

This summer, despite their admirable thrift, the bean plants withered in bone dry conditions. Southwest Colorado’s entire 2018 dryland bean crop failed, along with almost all of its wheat, sunflower, and safflower.

“They just sat there and sat there and stunted,” says Pribble of the beans. Farmers, as they look to crop-insurance payments to recoup some of their lost income, are reeling as the worst drought in 120 years forces hard choices on an already precarious agricultural regime.

Between Cortez, Colo., and Monticello, Utah, stretches the vast Great Sage Plain, a wind-swept plateau sloping gently south to the edge of the broken canyon country along the San Juan River. Hundreds of Ancestral Puebloan archaeological sites scattered across the area give evidence of previous largescale dryland-corn cultivation enduring until about 1280 A.D.

Over the last hundred years, enterprising American farmers again cleared the sagebrush, piñon, and juniper from the flats, and have banked on a typically steady cycle of winter snows and late-summer “monsoon” rains to infiltrate the deep red soil. With skillful cultivation and careful timing, they have brought dryland crops to maturity, year after year, on the edge of a desert.

It has not always worked. Drought hit in 1950, 1956, 1966, and 2002. Other years saw yield problems, too. But nothing has been as severe as 2018. For over a year, the precipitation record has foretold catastrophe for dryland farmers.

Read more

WHAT IS THE FREE PRESS?A monthly publication delivering in-depth news, lively features, and thought-provoking columns on life in the Four Corners.

The Four Corners Free Press is an independent, alternative paper with real substance. Every month, we sink our teeth into meaty topics, providing in-depth, comprehensive news stories on important local and regional issues that affect our readers.

Here’s what you can find in the Four Corners Free Press:

  • Thorough, balanced, in-depth news coverage by award-winning, experienced journalists who are familiar with the community and region.
  • The liveliest Opinion section in the Four Corners, with a rotating group of columnists writing everything from serious political commentary to humor.
  •  A perennial readers’ favorite: Our Crime Waves section describing local misdeeds. Crime Waves is available only in our print edition.
  • A Health section with columns and articles on a variety of health and wellness topics.
  • A comprehensive Arts & Entertainment section to tell our readers what’s going on in the Four Corners. We offer feature articles; reviews of books, music and movies; and calendars of cultural events, live music, and other happenings.
Bluff, UT
* K&C Trading Post, 161 E. Main
Cortez, CO
* Books, 124 Pinon
* Burger Boy Drive In, 400 E. Main
* Cliffrose, 27885 Highway 160
* Colorado Welcome Center, 928 E. Main
* Cortez Public Library
* Cortez Recreation Center, 425 Roger Smith Ave.
* Cortez Livestock Auction, 12129 Highway 491
* Cortez Municipal Airport
* El Grande Café, 28 E. Main
* IFA, 10501 Highway 491
* Johnson Building, 925 S. Broadway
* Kokopelli Bike & Board, 30 W. Main
* Once Upon a Sandwich, 1 W. Main
* Pippo’s Cafe, 100 W. Main
* Post Office, 35 S. Beech
* Southwest Memorial Hospital
* Shear Shack Salon, 37 E. Main
* Silver Bean, 410 W. Main
* Sinclair Gas Station
* Spruce Tree Coffeehouse, 330 E. Main
* In front of Subway, 1835 E. Main
* The Farm Bistro, 18 E. Main
Dolores, CO
* Dolores Food Market, 400 Railroad Ave.
* Dolores River Brewery, 100 South 4th
* Ponderosa Restaurant, 108 South 8th
Dove Creek, CO
* Dove Creek Superette, 445 Hwy. 491
Durango, CO
* Bread, 42 County Road 250
* Magpie Newsstand Cafe, 707 Main Ave.
* In front of El Rancho, 900 Block Main Ave.
* In front of Francisco’s, 619 Main Ave.
* In front of Steamworks, 801 E. 2nd Ave.
Farmington, NM
* San Juan Regional Medical Center
Mancos, CO
* Absolute Bakery, 110 S. Main
* Fahrenheit Roasters, 201 W. Grand
* P&D Grocery, 280 E. Frontage Road
Blanding, Utah
*San Juan Pharmacy
*Four Corners Inn
Shiprock, NM
* Northern Navajo Medical Center

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