Eat your view is the mantra of the local food movement, but when one stands at the quarry on Emerald Mountain, dismounts the chairlift on the top of Storm Peak or descends the West Summit of Rabbit Ears Pass, what does he or she see? Snow, lots of snow.
It is difficult to imagine this seemingly inedible and frozen landscape that is buried in snow from the third elk season in November until the fence lines reappear as a mangled knot of snapped and twisted steel in May, yielding significant nutrition.
Community Agriculture Alliance
This weekly column about agriculture issues is written by area farmers, ranchers and policymakers. It publishes on Fridays in the Steamboat Today. Read more columns here.
But what does a Yampa Valley rancher or farmer see when he or she takes in our wintry mid-February vistas? Water, lots of water. Water to saturate soils for dryland crops and upland grazing lands. Water to fill irrigation ditches that water fields of timothy, wheatgrass and alfalfa that will feed sheep and cattle through seven dark months of winter. Water to recharge springs and ponds that water livestock and wildlife — elk, deer and antelope — in distant pastures and rangeland. And the growing number of local vegetable farmers in our community see water for their wells, springs or spigots to grow crisp greens, fat potatoes and that spicy mountain garlic that our local Italian families have made famous.
These same ranchers and farmers see water for their river — enough to wet the backs of Colorado River cutthroat trout or to grow a riparian forest of cottonwoods, willows and alders that provides habitat for an ecosystem of riparian flora and fauna with a biodiversity unique only to Routt County.
Snow may lack nutrition, but it is what makes our rivers flow that, in turn, allows our crops, livestock and wildlife to thrive.
As the greatest water consumer in Colorado, agriculture is an easy target for urban interests that propose the transfer of water rights from rural lands to urban areas as a solution to the looming water crisis facing Front Range municipalities and their inedible backyard landscapes. But without water in our rural communities, there would be no agriculture. And where would you be without agriculture?
Answer: naked and hungry.
In the Yampa Valley, we share the great privilege of being part of an agrarian landscape full of nutrition-producing farms and ranches that harness the long winter’s snow to grow our food. We don’t have to own a farm to know from where food comes. It is in our view. But not everyone in Colorado is so lucky to share that connection to food and the water resources that it takes to produce it.
By protecting our rivers and preserving our agricultural heritage, we will be able to eat our view for generations to come. But if we stop asking ourselves, our decision-makers and our neighbors on the other side of the Continental Divide where they would be without agriculture, then Denver will continue to grow green lawns for generations to come. They’ll just be naked and hungry while doing it.
Kelly Heaney is on the board of directors for the Community Agriculture Alliance, and she sits on the technical committee for the Upper Yampa Watershed Group. She has worked as an Environmental and Water Resources professional in the Yampa Valley since 2002.