By Karin Deneke, Photos by Chuck Reel and Karin Deneke
The San Luis Valley’s farming legacy includes old and new methods of agriculture within a historically sustainable alpine location.
You cannot miss the hay trucks when traveling east on La Veta Pass. Loaded with heavy bales of alfalfa, they slowly and carefully maneuver the steep and winding U.S. 160 on their way to the lower elevations and bigger populations of Colorado’s Front Range. The crop they haul was raised west of the pass in the San Luis Valley, a huge high-elevation alpine basin topped by the pass itself, which rises to 9,400 feet at the summit.
The irrigated sandy high desert soil of the San Luis Valley produces—on large acreages—alfalfa, hay, potatoes and small grain. In the northwestern end of the valley, migrant workers harvest the head lettuce fields. Livestock farming—mostly cattle breeds—boosts the valley’s hard-earned farm income. Long, very frigid winters and moderate summer temperatures add up to a short growing season and limit the diversity of agricultural crops. Soybeans and field corn are nonexistent here.
Farming practices in the San Luis Valley, as we know them now, have undergone a major change since the post-World War II years. Ninety-year-old Augustine Medina can attest to that. Raised on a small farm in the southeastern section of the valley, near the historic community of Fort Garland, at the age of 17, his life took him away from the farm to a new frontier. In 1942, Mr. Medina was sent to what he refers to as “pre-induction training” in preparation for his draft into the Navy at the age of 18. Duty on a destroyer, escorting troupe ships from Pearl Harbor, followed.
Before the war, diversified and small family farms were normal in the valley, Mr. Medina recalls. His parents worked hard to put food on the table during the Great Depression, and most fieldwork was performed with teams of horses and simple farm equipment. Wheat harvesting entailed mowing the mature wheat and feeding it in bundles into a hired steam-fired threshing machine. The separated grain then was stored in bins and later hauled to a mill in the nearby town of San Luis to be ground into flour.
Pinto beans, what Mr. Medina called “field peas,” became a major crop on the Medina Farm. Since the growing season in the valley lasts a short three months at the most, night frost could—and still is—expected as late as during the middle of June and again by the middle of September. Before fall arrived, Mr. Medina’s family hired kids from town—“town kids,” he called them—to pull the acres of still green plants. The crop then was piled into mounds, roots up, and left in the field for drying, a staple used as livestock feed during the long winter months.
In spring, his parents started hundreds of cabbage plants in hotbeds, which were then painstakingly transplanted. In fall, the mature heads were harvested by hand and sold to an outfit that sent trucks from farm to valley farm to purchase the cabbage. The crop was then hauled to warehouses in Texas and Oklahoma.
Another produce variety grown in the valley, Mr. Medina recalled, was cauliflower. It was shipped east in refrigerated train cars. He also remembers fields of spinach, harvested by seasonal Mexican workers, and added that California, with its milder climate, could raise two crops per year, and that advantage eventually put the valley out of business for most trucked garden produce.
Farmers helped each other during planting and harvest season, Mr. Medina said. Diversification was necessary in those days, and each small farm also kept livestock, a few cows, a flock of sheep and pigs.
Lard from pigs and tallow from cattle was used for soap making. Meat was stored between large chunks of ice, harvested from a nearby reservoir during the winter months. They stored large blocks in sawdust and it kept all summer.
Mr. Medina’s mother dried pumpkin chips, chilies and apples to boost the family’s winter food supply. To keep mice away, she would hang everything from the ceiling in bags. Canning was a major method of preservation, and jars were stored in the root cellar. He made a point, that farmers near his family during The Great Depression took care of themselves, but farm folks in the surrounding villages were supported with government commodities.
During the early years of the Depression, livestock prices plummeted. Eventually, FDR ordered the slaughter of thousands of cattle and hogs to bring stability to the market—known as the Agricultural Adjustment Act. To this day, Mr. Medina can remember beef and pork jerky drying in the sun on many fences in his rural neighborhood. Jobs were scarce in the valley. One of Augustine’s relatives made a living trapping beaver in the northwestern end of the valley. When the government created the WPA—a workforce with a mission to build roads—things eased up a bit.
With an average rainfall of only seven to 10 inches for the valley, irrigation of the primarily desert land was a must. It still is. During the 1850s, the first network of canals and irrigation ditches tapped the snowmelt-filled Rio Grande and Conejos rivers, encouraging more farming.
But like most areas, change continued as often as the different seasons. After the war, small farms in the valley started to sell off, and many owners moved to Colorado’s Front Range to find work. Large farms now dominate the landscape, producing potatoes, alfalfa, wheat and barley, using old and new methods of agriculture. In the southern region today, canola is being raised and converted into fuel. There is a new crop on the horizon—commercial hemp for fiber production, which eventually makes clothing and rope. (And of course, since the legalization of marijuana in 2014, another industry has developed.) The roots of most of the valley’s residents go back to Spain and Mexico. The valley has the largest native Hispanic population in Colorado and is rich in cultural history. It is not unusual to hear Spanish spoken on the streets and in the stores, as many residents are bilingual. San Luis, the oldest town in Colorado, located in Costilla County, close to the New Mexico line, was founded in 1851 and was once part of four Spanish Land Grants decreed by the King of Spain.
Nomadic Indian tribes, such as the Utes, prior to the first Europeans, hunted and settled in southwestern Colorado.
Prior to World War II, the valley was home to a thriving Japanese American Community. First generation Japanese Americans worked on the railroad and as laborers on farms. Sadly, by the onset of the war, many Japanese were unfairly jailed in internment camps. During the past decade, Amish families, drawn by relatively cheap farmland compared to that of their former homes east of the Mississippi, have settled in the southwestern end of the valley. Using old and new methods of agriculture, Amish farmers raise hay and small grains, keep livestock and plant large vegetable gardens.
The San Luis Valley, in addition to agricultural products, relies on the income generated by tourism, hunting, fishing and winter sports. The national forests surrounding it harbor big herds of elk, and are home to mule deer and other large and small game. Years ago, precious metal mining brought in revenue as well.
A High Valley with Deep Roots
The San Luis Valley, 122 miles long and 74 miles wide, has the distinction of being the largest agricultural alpine valley in the United States. Surrounded by the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in the east and the jagged San Juans in the west, it is accessible via several steep passes and reaches into a section of northern New Mexico on the south. Fifty percent of the two million acres in the valley are privately owned. The remainder is comprised of state and national forest land, and sections of Bureau of Land Management acreage. It is made up of six counties, with Alamosa being the largest city, located in the county by the same name. U.S. 160, a major highway, enters the valley from the east byway of La Veta Pass, and leaves Colorado at the Four Corners Area, where Arizona, Utah and New Mexico connect.
Relying on both old and new methods of agriculture, the San Luis Valley continues to be a sustainable farming hub.
Karin Deneke writes about agriculture and other topics for Countryside from her home in Fort Garland, Colorado.
Originally published in Countryside May/June 2016 and regularly vetted for accuracy.