Center: ‘We haven’t sacrificed yield at all’ — Brendon Rockey

From the Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

Preaching to a slightly different choir, Center farmer Brendon Rockey shared with members of the Rio Grande Roundtable yesterday how his family’s farm has changed its agricultural practices to improve soil health and save water. He explained how Rockey Farms, in its third generation of San Luis Valley farmers, gradually moved away from traditional practices of using herbicides, fungicides, insecticides and other “cides” to address threats to its potato crops. Now the farm uses a “pro” rather than “anti” approach , Rockey explained. He used the term biotic to describe the type of farming his family has embraced, beginning with his uncle’s “We are looking at the big picture,” he told members of the Valley-wide water group in Alamosa on Tuesday.

Rockey explained that the “cides” that farmers have been using over the years, including his family farm until recent years, were not only killing off the pests, fungi, weeds and nematodes that were causing problems for potato growers but were also killing off beneficial insects, fungi, plants and worms.

“A lot of those have a good ability to control diseases for us if we would let them,” Rockey said.

Many fungi will kill harmful nematodes for the farmers if they would use them instead of killing them. Also, 90 percent of the nematodes are beneficial , he said.

In addition to using “cides” problems ranging from insects to weeds, farmers have boosted production with synthetic fertilizers that have created the negative side effect of high concentrations of salt.

“Most of the problems we are dealing with today our problems we have created ourselves,” Rockey said.

With degraded soil structures came less efficient water use, Rockey added. For example, 20 years ago the sprinklers would sink in a particular potato field every year, and the farmers would blame the soil type in that field , when the real problem was waterlogged soil. With changes in the way the family farms now, that doesn’t occur, Rockey added. The soil is literally stronger. “We are still trying to control the same diseases but the approach is different,” Rockey said.

Now Rockey Farms adds rather than taking away, he explained. One of the ways the farming family does this is by adding soil primers such as companion crops like legumes and green manure crops that enrich the soil in rotation with potato crops.

“Did that have direct water savings? Green manure crops use less than 6 inches of water. We were also surprised how much water we saved on the potato crops.”

Rockey Farms could grow a potato crop on 14 inches, while the average water use for potato crops in the Valley is 18 inches. Using less water on the potato crops, and using it more efficiently, means less rot and blight as well, Rockey said. It also means less expense to the farmer, because running sprinklers costs money.

Other area where Rockey Farms has changed its practice is in the way it uses beneficial predators to fight insects such as aphids that are harmful to their crops. In the past the family would introduce aphid predators like lady bugs to the fields, but the beneficial predators would only stay a day and then leave because they needed more food diversity than the aphids to keep them there. The Rockeys are experimenting with diverse flowers that would help keep beneficial predators like ladybugs and lacewings in their fields longer.

“This next summer we are trying to figure ways to bring more flowers into potato crops,” Rockey said.

Rockey offered to share the lessons his family has learned over time with other farmers wishing to improve their soil health and reduce water consumption.

He concluded that the changes in farming practices have not adversely affected production.

“We haven’t sacrificed yield at all,” he concluded.

More Rio Grande River Basin coverage here.

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