Few people in the Colorado part of the Republican River basin are under the impression that there won’t be dramatic change eventually — even in areas that still have plenty of water.
“Everyone recognizes the fact that we have got to slow down depletions,’ said Republican River Water Conservation District manager Deb Daniel. “Because the longer we can have irrigated ag in this area, the longer our communities will have to adapt to not being able to have irrigation in this area.”
One thing is clear from what she and others are saying: no one solution will be enough. It will take a combination of different growing methods, scientific breakthroughs, massive revitalization projects and more to mitigate the losses these communities and this environment face.
Two agricultural producer-side solutions are broken down below: crop science and changing growing methods
Black-eyed peas are an alternative crop emblematic of both the benefits – and limits – of many solutions being considered.
“I’m like the Johnny Appleseed of black-eyed peas,” said Jason Webb, a field agronomist with Trinidad Benham, a Denver-based bean seed company. “Anybody I talk to, we’re going to talk black eyed peas.”
Webb works in Sterling, a rural city at the edge of Colorado’s Republican River basin, where he spends a lot of time on farms, talking to farmers about the possibility of growing various beans from the seeds Benham offers.
“It’s just so fascinating on how this plant can be manipulated by water and by fertility, where a lot of other crops can’t,” he said.
Black-eyed peas not only can grow with less water, Webb said, the protein-filled plants actually prefer it. Webb has gotten a handful of area producers growing them.
“I have a lot of growers that say, ‘I would like to replace all my wheat acres with this,” he said.
It sounds like a great idea: save water and the economy by filling the hundreds of thousands of acres between Burlington and Sterling with black-eyed peas instead of corn and wheat.
There’s a catch, though.
“We can’t put in thousands and thousands of acres or tens of thousands of acres of one crop and expect that market to hold up,” Webb said. “Not without creating demand on the other end.”
Market forces don’t want black-eyed peas the way they do corn and wheat. The peas are such a “niche within a niche,” Webb said, growing too many could make them near-worthless to farmers.
Demand could rise someday, Webb says, but a lot would have to change. There are other limiting factors: some soil types out here can’t grow these beans, and farmers might need to buy new equipment to grow and harvest them.
But growing irrigated corn and similar crops may get less…