TOWAOC — Drought in much of the West, 22 years running, has struck Colorado’s Four Corners tribal lands with bitter force. This year, the Ute Mountain Ute’s celebrated 7,700 acre farm and ranch operation had to lay off half its workers as thousands of acres lay fallow.
The devastating loss of water has meant that the Ute Mountain Ute Farm and Ranch Enterprise could only plant 2,500 acres of corn, a tenth of the 25,000 acres they have planted in wetter years.
The Farm and Ranch is the crown jewel of the Utes, a tribal success story which, more than 60 years ago, saw indigenous farmers turn miles of barren land into waving green alfalfa and corn fields. In addition to the farm project, there are 700 cattle roaming the grounds, descendants of the original herd brought here in 1962. In the winter, they drink from what is left of water that has been used for the crops, saved in a glistening canal and monitored as fiercely as liquid gold.
The Farm and Ranch operation is state-of-the-art. Fertilizer applicators the size of a house are controlled by satellites. Miles of water pipelines feed center irrigation pivots.
This year, because of the water shortage, only eight of the farm’s 110 pivots were needed, with the rest perched flat-footed and spider-like on the dry fields.
How the water first arrived
Water for Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Land originates with snow on the peaks of the San Juans, which thaws in the spring and flows into the Dolores River. Some of the water ends up in Colorado’s second largest reservoir, the McPhee, which almost didn’t get built.
The Dolores Project was on the chopping block, on a list of Western water projects set to be cut by President Jimmy Carter in the 1970s. However, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe was entitled to senior water rights as a result of the 1908 decision by the Supreme Court in Winters v. United States.
While the tribe owned these rights, they had historically had difficulty in accessing the water.
“Recognizing that the Dolores Project offered perhaps the only feasible alternate water supply for the reservation, the administration ultimately agreed to provide the Dolores Project funding pursuant to the Ute Indian Water Rights Settlement to satisfy the senior water rights held by the tribe,” wrote the Dolores Water Conservancy District engineer Eric Sprague, adding that in 1987, the Colorado Ute Indian Water Rights Settlement Act allowed the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe to build a 39.9 mile channel, which ends at Farm and Ranch but services hundreds of thirsty fields along the way down.
This year the area’s water entities reduced the water allotment to all of the full-service farmers, including the Ute Mountain Ute, to a meager 10%.
“They’re struggling just as bad as we are,” said rancher Zane Odell, who runs his own cattle operation on federal lands on the outskirts of Cortez. Like all of the farmers and ranchers on the ditch, Odell knows without the federal government’s late intervention, there would be no irrigation system for anyone. “Everybody rides the backs of these indigenous people. The settlement was the only way we could get help.”
Better corn, better whiskey
On a cloudless November day, farmers weeded and irrigation crews serviced sprinklers as crows watched from two of three empty silos.
“The crows are survivalists,” said the farm’s general manager, Simon Martinez. “They survive and we will survive.”
March marked Martinez’ 30th year helping realize the tribe’s vision for the Ute Mountain Ute Farm and Ranch. This year has been a mixed bag of blessings and curses.
The drought has meant layoffs, but the corn product is exploding online under the “Bow and Arrow” brand. Even though they’re sister operations, Bow and Arrow pays the Farm and Ranch for the corn they use to manufacture a variety of products that range from polenta to livestock grain. Colorado companies use Bow and Arrow corn for tortillas, snack chips and moonshine.
It’s no surprise that local distilleries have discovered Bow and Arrrow’s non-GMO, gluten-free product, including Broomfield’s Whistle and Hare, Durango Craft Spirits and Snitching Lady Distillery, which makes a 100% blue corn whiskey called “Button’s Blue Corn,” named after the owner’s cat.
Bow and Arrow blue corn has been the catalyst behind Snitching Lady’s recent notoriety. Button’s Blue Corn has won several awards, including best American whiskey at the 2020 World Whiskey Awards.
“The blue corn gives it a butterscotch taste. It’s special because we’re higher and the boiling point is 165 degrees compared to 220 degrees,” said Snitching Lady owner Thomas Williams, who first met Martinez in a Walmart parking lot before he opened his distillery in 2017. Williams’ secret ingredient, blue corn, lacks the acidic taste found in yellow and white corn. American Whiskey Magazine said it tasted like “sweet corn pudding and sugar cookie.”
“The best whiskey is not from Kentucky any more. It now comes from Colorado,” said Snitching Lady bartender Kerby Lanier, who recommended Button’s Blue for an old fashioned cocktail. “It’s delivered as cracked blue corn, and when we start the fermentation, it turns purple, and when we put it in the still, it becomes a bright pink.”
The final product is a caramel color.
Martinez said that despite the drought’s low corn output, this has been the busiest week in the history of Bow and Arrow. “Loads are going out all over. Everyone is getting ready for Thanksgiving,” he said, as he maneuvered his truck over hard dirt potholes on his way to the farm property.
After a long night grinding blue, white and yellow corn into fine meal, eight employees had returned to the facility’s mill at dawn to load the 50-pound bags onto semis headed for the Western Foods plant in Pine Bluff, Ark., 1,200 miles away. Half a dozen other truckloads were on the day’s schedule.
Most of the Farm and Ranch workforce is tribal and lives in Towaoc, headquarters for the Ute Mountain Ute, nestled at the base of Sleeping Ute Mountain. Besides farm and ranch work, jobs on tribal land can be found at the Ute Mountain Ute Casino, in construction or in health care. Still, unemployment among the 2,000 member tribe is a punishing 80%.
Because of the drought, the coveted positions at the Farm and Ranch have gone from nearly 40 to 15.
The Ute culture frowns on blaming Mother Nature for the drought’s hardships.
“It will be good once again. We can’t change Mother Nature. You can’t force it,” said Lamar Fields, a miller who is teaching his 3-year-old son, Trayvon, to pray for rain.
“I’ll give you a little bit of history,” Fields said, sharing the story of his recent release from jail. He’s grateful for the opportunity to shape up.
“I plan to continue doing what I’m doing here. I want to make the company successful,” Fields said. “It’s kind of hard. We used to see acres of corn growing. Hay. All green and now it’s just bare. It’s all dirt.”
This is a fact illustrated by a full-color map in the lobby of the Ute Farm and Ranch administration building. It shows a depressing before and after picture: In 2020, blue, red and green dots illustrate all but 47 of the 25,000 acres of fields were planted with corn and hay, accomplished with the help of carryover water from the McPhee Reservoir’s robust 2019. But there was no leftover water this year. Most of those dots on the map are gray, with the colorful dots drastically down to the tiny 2,500 acres area.
General Manager Martinez has managed to keep workers rotating wherever there’s work to be done. “One of them is a tractor mechanic today, but he may be working the nozzles tomorrow,” said Martinez as he walked by huge farm contraptions as green as the fields used to be.
Despite a dismal 2021, the Farm and Ranch operation is a marvel for a group of wide-eyed master’s students from Western Colorado University. They piled out of a dusty van to hear about the farm’s unusual irrigation process, which uses no electricity.
“The water is transported down the Towaoc Highline Canal through gravity flow,” said irrigation manager Michael Vicenti, a solemn Ute Mountain Ute with blue-black hair, his hands in his pockets to ward off morning’s chill. “Down to the very last nozzle.”
Last year, it took eight people in two-person crews to keep the equipment running. This year, with so little water, three people handled the job.
One of the students is a woman from Nigeria who recorded the tour with her cellphone. “I hope (to) bring what I’m learning about farming in the U.S. to my country,” Yetunde Rotimi said. Farmers in Northern Nigeria are struggling to keep the rice crop growing in the midst of ongoing drought and periods of flooding, she said.
“The more you know, the more you can apply,” said student Matthew Merritt, hopping on the van for the trip home. He thinks the solution to the West’s drought problems involves tough conversation about whether the dwindling water supply is sustainable for so many farms and ranches across the West.
The view from the edge of Farm and Ranch property is an endless stretch of mountain desert land where four states meet: Colorado, Arizona, Utah and New Mexico, from which Ship Rock juts up from the horizon surrounded by miles of flat earth. When Martinez was considering whether he should leave the Ute Mountain Ute Farm and Ranch operation after two years of lower management, he considered this landscape and its people.
His answer came with the breeze.
“I was driving, and I heard wings flapping. Then a huge eagle flew in front of me and landed on a post. I told, him, ‘I heard you before I saw you,’” Martinez told The Gazette.
Office Manager Nichole Cisneros-Weeks said that in the Ute Mountain Ute culture, the eagle is a sign that a person is on the right path.
Martinez has no regrets looking back on 30 years of challenges battling politics and drought. Especially this year.
“We’ll see what Spring brings and be ready for whatever Mother Nature brings our way.”