Rockey Farms

Rockey Farms

Rockey Farms

Brendon Rockey, Rockey Farms, Center, Colorado. Credit: Brendon Rockey.

For every research paper you read on global warming, you find another one saying it is getting cooler. I think weather cycles, but I don’t get too hung up on patterns because it is beyond my control. My whole focus is just creating a resilient system that can handle climate change, whichever direction it might be.

Brendon Rockey

Rockey Farms

Southwest Region | Center, CO

Main Product: Vegetables (table and seed potatoes)

Scale: 500 acres under management

Featured Resilience Behaviors:

Shift some cash to cover crops,  intercropped cover crops, insectory field  strips,  livestock integration.

This story is based on a 2013 interview, with a 2020 update.

Brendon and Sheldon Rockey are the third generation to grow potatoes on 500 acres of irrigated land in the San Luis Valley of Colorado. The Rockeys operate a farm and packinghouse near Center. Brendon is in charge of field operations while Sheldon is operations manager of the business which packs specialty potatoes for certified seed and fresh table use. The farm focuses on direct sales to commercial potato growers and the wholesale fresh table potato market. They also do some direct sales from the farm.

Brendon has successfully incorporated sustainable agriculture practices like cover cropping and companion planting into the production system to improve soil quality and conserve water. The increased soil quality that Brendon achieved with the new cropping practices improved farm profitability because he found that he could use less water and decrease or eliminate fertilizer and pesticide use while maintaining yields and improving crop quality.

Brendon Rockey says that concerns about water use on their farm pushed him and his brother into trying cover crops. Average rainfall in the valley is about five inches per year, so all agriculture there is irrigated. Growers pump from wells and that water is replaced each spring from the snowmelt, which flows down from the mountains to replenish the groundwater. During this drought, growers have been pumping more water from the aquifer than is being replaced by the snowmelt and in 2013 the aquifer level hit a record low. “Water has always been a huge issue for us out here in Southern Colorado. We’re in the middle of a drought like a lot of America, and it’s been going on now for fifteen plus years. It has really forced us to make some changes to our management practices, but it’s actually helped out our farm as a whole,” explains Brendon.

Longtime growers of certified seed potatoes as well as fresh market potatoes, the brothers decided to drop barley from their two-year potato/barley rotation about ten years ago and replace it with a mixed cover crop as a way to decrease water use. They reduced their water use by about fourteen inches, and the switch had some other significant and unexpected benefits. As Brendon explains, “Bringing in a diverse cover crop improved our soil health so much that it had a huge impact on the productivity of our potato crop.” The increase in soil quality reduced input costs and increased potato quality so dramatically that Brendon found it was more profitable to grow one cash crop every two years than one cash crop every year.

The cover crop success and the extreme drought in the Southwest has Brendon thinking about how to get even more out of his cover crops. As the drought continues unabated, Brendon is contemplating a polyculture designed to encourage beneficial insects and suppress pests in the potato crop. “We’ve seen so much positive impact from having the multi-species out in the cover crop that we are thinking about bringing more diversity into the potato crop. Next year I am planting a three-species companion crop and an eight-species insectary crop in the potatoes. I’m planting peas, chickling vetch and buckwheat in the rows with the potatoes. So I’ve got the two legumes out there for my nutrient management and the buckwheat attracting insects. I am also going to plant an occasional row of insectory mix in among the potatoes as well for the purpose of attracting predatory insects.” Brendon hopes to further reduce input costs and increase soil quality with the additional diversity added to his crop rotation.

Looking ahead, Brendon wonders about the future of agriculture in his valley. If the water supply becomes even more limited, growers will have no choice but to start taking acreage out of production. “I guess that’s the real scary thing. I’m hoping that we can get enough guys to do the right thing and save enough water that we don’t get to that point. It seems from the outside like it would be easy, but the attitude here is like, ‘I wish the neighbors would all cut back on the water so I can keep farming every acre I have.’ You just try and get a bunch of farmers together and get them to all agree on the same approach. It’s really difficult!”

Since 2013, the continuing drought in the southwest means that “water is still the number one stress factor for us in this valley,” according to Brendon. “It’s been business as usual since we talked last, no dramatic changes one way or the other in the weather.”  He has been pleased with 

Long-term drought, plus low barley prices, have encouraged more potato farmers in the region to replace barley with cover crops, a shift that both conserves water and improves the production of the following potato crop. Brendon thinks these benefits have helped to make cover crops a more common practice in in the valley.  “I’ve heard a lot of people say that even if water was no longer a concern, they would continue to grow cover crops because of the benefits to the potato crop.”

Crop diversity has continued to be a focus of Brendon’s farm management. “I cringe when I see a monoculture,” Brendon says, “because I can’t imagine that crop functioning at its peak when it’s a single species by itself. It just doesn’t make sense to me.” He has increased his companion crop mix to five species and has also expanded his insectory strip mix to more than 20 species to cultivate the long bloom time and complex plant architecture needed to support high populations of beneficial insects throughout the growing season. He has also done some recent trials to explore the potential of adding quinoa to his cash crop mix.

Perhaps the biggest change at Rockey Farms since 2013 has been Brendon’s decision to integrate cattle and sheep into his crop rotation through contract grazing of cover crops. “It’s funny when you look back, because when my grandpa started farming here, every single farmer had livestock. I’m not sure at what point we drew the line in the sand and said, ‘you can only be a farmer or a rancher,’ but it’s nice to be bringing the two components back together again because both parties benefit from it.” Neighboring ranchers appreciate the opportunity to graze their stock on high quality cover crops close to home, and Brendon appreciates the additional income from pasture rent which pays about 75% of his cover crop seed costs, plus the added soil health benefits of managed, multi-species grazing.

Looking long-term at the future of agriculture in his region, Brendon recognizes that challenges of the continuing drought, but points to the growing population along Colorado’s Front Range as a bigger threat. Thinking about the most recent attempt to pipe water from his valley to supply homes 200 miles away in the Denver area, Brendon says, “I finally decided, you know what? Climate change is not going to be the thing that ends agriculture in this valley. I am much more worried about people than I am about weather changes. It’s going to be politics and other people that will put an end to it, long before climate change will.”

Brendon and Sheldon regularly host visitors and lead workshops at their farm and Brendon is a regular speaker at farming conferences and workshops throughout the U.S. The brothers were nationally recognized in 2012 for their innovative potato production system as recipients of the Soil and Water Conservation Society Merit Award for promoting sustainable agriculture and soil health.  In 2015, the National Potato Council recognized their leadership with the Environmental Stewardship Award.

Monroe Organic Farms

Monroe Organic Farms

Monroe Organic Farms

Jacquie and Jerry Monroe, Monroe Family Farms, Kersey, Colorado. Credit: Jacquie Monroe.

We here in Colorado have been in and out of a drought since 1998 and more in a drought than out so water out here is everything. We have to irrigate in order to get a crop, so water is a huge problem especially since most of the fresh water is owned by the farmers and all the cities are taking that water away.

Jacquie Monroe

Monroe Organic Farms

Southwest Region | Kersey, CO

Main Product: Vegetables

Scale: 105 acres under management

Featured Resilience Behaviors:

Improve irrigation, add protected space.

This story is based on a 2013 interview.

Jerry and Jacquie Monroe are the third generation to farm his family’s 20-acre “homeplace” in Kersey, Colorado, about an hour northeast of Denver. Monroe Family Farms is the oldest organic farm in Colorado. When Jerry and Jacquie took over from Jerry’s father in 1991, they went into the business of growing organic vegetables in a big way, adding 175 acres and starting the first CSA in Colorado in 1993, because they wanted to work closely with people who appreciated their farming philosophy. Today, the farm produces a hundred different kinds of vegetables and all the pasture, hay and feed grains needed to produce pasture-based meats (beef, pork, and lamb) and eggs on site — all of it USDA-certified organic. With the help of seven employees, Jerry manages the crop and livestock production while Jacquie manages sales and distribution for their year-around, 650-member CSA. The farm also markets to select restaurants in Denver and Boulder.

The Monroes emphasize soil health, water and energy conservation on their farm. They maintain soil health by integrating livestock into a diverse rotation of vegetables, alfalfa and feed grains. Irrigation has been upgraded from gravity-fed, furrow irrigation to more water-efficient pivot and drip systems and they use tailwater ponds to capture and return to the fields any surface runoff that occurs during irrigation or rainfall events. Produce for the winter months of the CSA are stored in dugouts, pits and straw-bale buildings, to reduce energy use. Jerry and Jacquie have succeeded with a philosophy of growing ample quantities of organic, life-filled and healthy foods while conserving and respecting the natural environment and to providing an educational experience working with Mother Nature for any CSA members who want it.

Sixteen years of extreme drought combined with higher summer temperatures, warmer winters, more extreme weather and a longer growing season have put the focus on water efficiency. “Water management has become huge,” says Jacquie. “Jerry has to keep track of how much water we have, how much he’s used. Everything has been flood irrigated here. Back in the day, they dug ditches and then had these pipes that went over the ditches and fields were just flooded to irrigate them. When you flood irrigate the top of the farm gets more water and the bottom of the farm gets less water and in the middle is the only part that gets the perfect amount of water.”

“Then we had to start conserving water because of the drought so we started putting in drip irrigation. I would say we have sixty acres of vegetables. When we first started with the drip irrigation, we put ten acres in. We’re up to probably forty acres of drip irrigation. And the rest of the crops are now under a new center pivot that we put in just this year because of the shortage of water. We want to make sure that we can continue to grow vegetables and the pivot and drip irrigation it puts that exact amount of water throughout the whole entire system. We are doing a lot more with water management. I don’t know that we would have done if our weather hadn’t changed and we hadn’t been so dry.”

Jacquie says that another change that has come with the drought has been more challenging weeds. “Weeds are starting to go crazy out here. We’re finding some of them are becoming very invasive. I can give you two examples. We’ve always had what’s called goatheads. It’s a small weed that grows very low to the ground and has a burr that sticks in your tires and in your shoes. It used to be only in certain parts of the farm, but now it seems to be going everywhere. The other one is sunflowers. We’ve never had sunflowers here before the drought. They are literally taking over all of our ditches. Anywhere that you can’t mow or get to they grow like trees and we can’t seem to get rid of them. These weeds are getting to be a problem for us. We’re trying to do a lot of mowing to try to keep them down, but the darn things adapt. They’re growing shorter now and growing a head and flowering close to the ground where the mower doesn’t hit.”

Like many other vegetable growers across the nation, the Monroes have also found opportunity in the longer growing season created by the changing climate. Jacquie estimates that in the last decade they have extended their growing season nearly two months with the help of some physical protection for frosts. They are in the field about a month earlier in the spring and can extend the fall harvest season about a month longer than they used to. “We’re picking things by the first of June and that’s never happened in our lives. That is crazy to think that we are able to produce something and harvest it by the first of June when our official last freeze date is May 15. We’ve extended our harvest season and our income has increased because of it.”

Jacquie and Jerry’s twenty-two-year-old son is weighing the pros and cons of joining his parents in the farm business. He would like to become the fourth generation on the farm, but competition for water in the region makes it difficult to imagine a lifetime in farming. “We are very concerned in the future about our water rights and whether or not we’re going to be able to get our water,” says Jacquie. “The cities are buying the water off the farms and taking it back to the city so people can eat, drink, bathe and water their lawns. Our elderly farmers are selling out. Once a person has gotten to a certain age and there isn’t a family member who wants to take over the farm, they sell their water. I don’t blame them. They finally have something of value that somebody wants and they’re paying them well for it, but it sure hurts the rest of us.”

“I’m to the point where I’m going to start asking at our annual water meeting that the farmers quit selling it, that they rent it to the cities for the rest of their lives and the rest of their children’s lives so that we can keep control of our water. That way the farmers can still have some kind of control over what’s going on out here. The cities are drying up our farms. They say that seven hundred thousand acres is supposed to be dried up in the next ten or fifteen years. It means that water will never go back to those farms. Once it’s gone, it’s gone forever.”

Fair Share Farm

Fair Share Farm

Fair Share Farm

Rebecca Graff and Tom Ruggieri, Fair Share Farm. Credit: Fair Share Farm

This year may have been an average year in the end, but what really happened was that we had a big rain event and then no rain for a month and then another big rain event, so we got 12 inches in July and then nothing in August and September. So, if you just look at the average, it looks like an average year, but we basically seem to be fluctuating from drought to flood and back again.

Rebecca Graff & Tom Ruggieri

Fair Share Farm

Midwest Region | Kearney, MO

Main Product: Vegetables

Scale: 10 acres under management

Featured Resilience Behaviors:

Carbon farming, vegetable ferments, Master Line earthworks.

Rebecca Graff and Tom Ruggieri own and operate Fair Share Farm, a diversified vegetable farm located in rural Clay County, Missouri. Together they manage about ten acres of annual and perennial vegetables and fruits, culinary herbs and a large flock of laying hens to feed people in the Kansas City metro area. They market fresh vegetables, fruits and eggs from their farm through a CSA and produce vegetable ferments for direct wholesale and farmers market sales. They also coordinate with other producers in their area to offer meat, cheese and bread options to their CSA members. This farm-based food hub/food circle model allows them to provide a more diverse group of products to their CSA while also cultivating a diverse network of local food production capacity.

Rebecca and Tom met back in 2001, just a year after each had left unsatisfying jobs to look for a better way to support healthy community by working in sustainable agriculture. Their paths crossed at Peacework Farm, an organic vegetable farm in western New York where Rebecca was working as a first-year apprentice. “Tom came out to one of the first member workdays,” Rebecca recalls. “It was mid-May and I had been there just about a month. I admired his leek-trimming skills as we were preparing vegetables for market. We went on our first date a week later. We apprenticed together the following year and we’ve been farming together ever since.”

After another year working as apprentices at the Micheala Farm in southeast Indiana, Rebecca and Tom headed back to Missouri to begin farming on land that has been in Rebecca’s family for four generations. The Graff family farm, like most farms in the area, produced corn, soybeans and cattle using conventional commodity production practices. “I grew up on a farm,” says Rebecca, “but I did not learn how to grow crops of any kind, so it was all new to me when I started my first apprenticeship.” Using holistic farm planning and biological farming practices, Rebecca and Tom worked over the years to create a farm sustained by healthy soils and healthy community.

Want to read more? You can find the full version of this story in the Second Edition of Resilient Agriculture, available for purchase here.

Harmony Valley Farm

Harmony Valley Farm

Harmony Valley Farm

Harmony Valley Farm co-owners Raphael Morales Peralta, Richard de Wilde and Andrea Yoder. Credit: Harmony Valley Farm.

In August of 2007 we got hit really hard with some really weird flooding caused by 18 inches of rain in a less than a 24-hour period. A lot of crops were peaking just then, like tomatoes. We had pretty big losses because a lot of our farm land is along the Bad Ax River. They called that a thousand year event. And then we had another one nine months later. That was when I said, ‘There’s no such thing as normal anymore’.

Richard DeWilde

Harmony Valley Farm

Midwest Region | Viroqua, WI

Main Product: Vegetables

Scale: 200 acres under management

Featured Resilience Behaviors:

Social recovery reserves, add cooling, low growing cover crops, shift from compost/cover crops to fertilizer w/crop testing, retreat from floodplains.

This story is based on a 2013 interview, updated in 2020.

Harmony Valley Farm is a diversified farm that spreads out over 200 acres of cropland, pastures and forest near Viroqua in southern Wisconsin, about two hours northwest of Madison. Richard de Wilde and Andrea Yoder, the co-owners manage the production of about 100 acres of organic vegetables and berries at the farm and on some leased land nearby.

Richard is a cofounder and master grower at Harmony Valley Farm, established in 1985, and applies his forty-plus years of farming experience to the integrated management of a healthy natural growing environment on the farm. Richard has always made managing for soil health a priority, believing it to be a key contributor to the success of the farm. Over the years, he has developed a system of cover cropping with green manures, applying natural rock powders and incorporating compost to maintain healthy soils. He controls pest by managing perennial habitat and nesting sites for beneficial wildlife including raptors, songbirds, bats, wasps and insects. Harmony Valley Farm is best known for its season-long, high-quality salad mix, sauté greens and spinach, as well as root crops harvested in the fall and distributed throughout the winter. The farm also produces grass-finished beef using intensive grazing practices.

Harmony Valley Farm sells organic produce, berries and beef through direct and wholesale markets, including a 1500-member CSA that runs from May through January with deliveries locally and to Madison, WI, and Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota. The farm also sells at the weekly Dane County Farmers Market, and to retail grocers and wholesale distributors throughout a large area from the Twin Cities to Madison. It employs a large team that varies from fifteen to sixty members, depending on the time of year, to produce and market its products.

Starting about seven or eight years ago, changing weather began to require some changes in production practices at the farm. More frequent heavy rains and stronger winds, more variable springs, warmer summers and longer falls have complicated vegetable production, according to Richard. “River bottom land is the best kind of land for growing vegetables in our area. And it’s great in dry periods, because we can irrigate out of the river.”

But the farm’s million dollars in losses in 2007 and 2008 as a result of unprecedented flooding really got Richard’s attention. “Not many people understand that vegetable farmers have little to no insurance against weather. We can participate in the USDA’s NAP program and we do. N-A-P is the abbreviation for Noninsured Agricultural Production. Noninsured meaning it’s not corn, soybeans, cotton, wheat. It’s not a commodity. NAP is a poor program. It is. It’s totally inadequate and we really don’t have much else. After the flood in 2007, USDA did not help us out. But if you’re a corn farmer, you can buy government-supported, 90-percent-guaranteed income on the corn crop. It’s gross. We should care more about feeding people than raising corn for export and ethanol and corn syrup.”

Richard remembers when weather used to move pretty predictably from west to east. During the 2007 flooding, he noticed for the first time a weather pattern that he associates with severe weather. “Something that I had never seen before the 2007 flood is a pattern of southerly flow bringing moisture up the Mississippi River Valley. The moisture turned in a circle before it hit the Great Lakes and then it just looped back on us and didn’t stop. It just didn’t move off and that’s why we got eighteen inches of rain. Now we have these weird looping events. I’ve seen it several times since and now it just scares me when I see that loop.”

Other than the extreme flooding events, most of the changes in weather Richard has observed are more severe expressions of familiar seasonal patterns. For example, extreme swings in the timing of spring are more common these days. For many years, spring planting at Harmony Valley Farm began reliably in the first week in April, but in the last decade it has begun to vary by almost a month, which increasingly complicates spring planning and transplant production. Falls generally are longer but more variable, so Richard has extended the fall production season “knowing that we are going to get burned sometimes.”

Richard also has noticed that winds seem to have become more frequent and intense. “Strong winds have definitely become more of a factor in the last few years. We have more wind and stronger wind. We lose row covers more often now. We’ve had more problems with row covers — even if they’d stayed on, there were so much wind that the movement of the cover abraded the leaves and so we have crop damage even under the cover, even if the cover stays on. In the winter, it used to be that the winds died down at night. This winter we’ve had an amazing amount of night winds and that brings more risk of wind chill.”

Looking back on the years since 2013, Richard recalls that 2014, 2015 and 2016 were “pretty good years” at Harmony Valley Farm and he was able to “save money for a rainy day.” And it was good that he did, because over the next four years, Richard says the weather took a turn for the worst.  “We’ve had four extremely cold, wet springs in row,” he explains, “and every single one set a record for the latest first day in the field. But then, not very long after that, it turned so hot that it was unbelievable.”

Three of these four years, flooding repeatedly damaged creek banks and low-lying fields, including one storm in 2018 that washed away five acres of top soil from one of Richard’s best fields. This combination of cold, wet conditions and extreme temperature shifts in the spring, plus heavier rains late into the fall created a number of disruptions in crop nutrition, crop pollination and harvest operations.

Richard has managed the crop nutrition challenges by making a shift from providing nutrients to his crops with fall-applied compost and winter cover crops to applying fertilizers during the spring and summer growing seasons based on regular crop testing. “We were seeing nutrient deficiencies that just did not make sense. We had problems that we’ve never seen before, fertility problems that shouldn’t have been there because there was plenty of nutrients in the soil. We were able to correct it pretty easily by applying fertilizers through our drip (irrigation) tape, but we have almost twice the fertilizer bill in these really heavy wet years as what we normally would.”

Generally wetter conditions through much of the growing season got Richard and his management team thinking about how to protect the soil from erosion during heavy rains and at the same time improve conditions for fieldwork. “We are developing a whole new system of low growing ground cover for the area in between our beds,” Richard explains. “Our beds are raised a little, and that’s a good thing because the water runs off the bed right away, but we were losing so much soil off of almost level fields with all the heavy rain. We went to this system of planting a mix of the shortest white Dutch clover we could find and the shortest grass that we know – creeping red fescue – in between the beds.” Richard says that they still have a few challenges with this new system to figure out, but it has reduced soil erosion, plus “for harvest, it’s really pleasant. You’re not walking in mud, you’re walking on the lawn.”

Damaging flooding has required more attention to cleaning up the creeks and dry washes that run through the farm to reduce the chances of water building up behind floating debris and overflowing into adjacent farm fields during heavy rains. Richard has abandoned several fields that have repeatedly flooded over the last five years and converted one flood-prone field from annual vegetable production to permanent pasture which is leased to a neighboring dairy farmer for custom grazing. “We said no more, three strikes and you’re out,” Richard explains. We are just not going to farm it anymore if it floods.”

Richard has always viewed good management as the most important part of cultivating climate resilience at Harmony Valley Farm. He appreciates the energy and enthusiasm for figuring out how to manage new weather challenges that the younger farmers on his management team bring to their work. “They’re not set in their ways,” Richard says. “They don’t have a preconceived notion about how it’s going to be. They are just learning and they are willing to try anything. I’m not sure I’d keep doing it if it wasn’t for them.”

One of these younger farmers, Raphael Morales, recently became the newest partner in Harmony Valley Farm.  After working 10 years on the farm as an H-2A temporary worker, Richard sponsored Raphael for a permanent visa. “Now he can be here year-around,” Richard explains, “which is what you need to be able  run a farm.”

Richard de Wilde has received national recognition for his long record of success as an organic grower and as a CSA marketer with a Sustie Award from the Ecological Farming Association and a Farmer of the Year award from the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service, both in 2003.  Harmony Valley Farm was profiled as one of sixty model U.S. sustainable farms and ranches in the USDA-SARE publication, The New American Farmer: Profiles of Agricultural Innovation.

Rid-All Green Partnership

Rid-All Green Partnership

Rid-All Green Partnership

David Hester, Keynah Durdan, Damian Forshe, Randy McShepard and Marc White, Rid-All Green Partnership. Credit: Gary Yasaki.

A year ago, we had this polar vortex, when it was minus 40 degrees for a week and a half straight. Then, this year we’re in late November and it’s 60 degrees. Early this year, it rained almost all spring and all early summer. It’s so unpredictable. So we have to be very adaptable to extreme weather changes and, excuse me, it’s sad to say, but we know it’s not going to get any better, it’s going to continue to get worse.

Marc White, Keymah Durdan & David Hester

Rid-All Green Partnership

Midwest Region | Cleveland, OH

Main Product: Vegetables

Scale: 15 acres under management

Featured Resilience Behaviors:

Urban soil/community restoration, 20 social enterprises, improve recovery reserves, growers’ network, carbon farming.

From the Public Square in downtown Cleveland, the trip out to the farm is an easy ten minutes by car on a Saturday morning. Head southeast on Ontario St. and continue onto Orange Avenue, then take a slight left onto Woodland Ave. and head due east out of town. Take a right on Kinsman Road, a left onto 81st St., then a right on Otter Ave and you’ve arrived at the Rid-All Green Partnership’s city farm. Although just a short drive from downtown Cleveland, decades of disinvestment have left the Kinsman area so isolated that it was nicknamed The Forgotten Triangle. It’s a problem faced by many post-industrial cities in the Midwest. Factories closed and when the white middle class took flight into the suburbs, they took investment capital, new industries and jobs with them.

The Rid-All farm began as a vision shared by three men who grew up together nearby, left home to find their fortunes in other places and returned to give back to the community that raised them. They came home to transform the land and people that they loved while sharing a gospel of soil: heal the soil, heal the people, heal the community, heal the planet.

“Our thing has been to see how far we can push this,” says Marc White, a founding partner and project manager. “To see how much we can do as urban farmers to help our community. It’s profound to see the effects of what we have created grow and change on a daily basis, year after year, season after season.” Marc’s many years in fashion design inform his work as the farm’s general manager and lead value-added product developer. He uses his design experience to create beautiful landscapes on the farm that produce healthy foods designed to promote the health and beauty of the people that enjoy his Urban Farm Doctor’s line of regenerative superfoods juice and food products.

Want to read more? You can find the full version of this story in the Second Edition of Resilient Agriculture, available for purchase here.