San Luis Valley: “As producers, we’ve got yield figured out” — Brendon Rockey

Photo credit San Luis Valley Heritage.

From The Bent County Democrat (Candace Krebs):

In the heart of prime potato growing country, one San Luis Valley farm has such a worldwide reputation for soil health innovation that a recent field day attracted guests from Canada, France and Sweden in addition to the surrounding area.

Rockey Farms, located a mile north of Center, is a multigenerational operation run by Brendon Rockey, a soil health pioneer who presents talks all over the world, and his brother Sheldon, who oversees distribution and marketing. When they opened the farm to several dozen visitors in mid-July, the resulting gathering was as diverse as the colorful mix of plants that blossomed in the surrounding fields.

The farm’s main business is growing certified seed potatoes, with an emphasis on unique varieties prized by farmers market growers. They also produce 150 acres of fingerling potatoes that are sold into the fresh market, mostly to restaurants but also at retail stores under the Farm Fresh Direct Growers Reserve label.

Five years ago, the Rockeys teamed up with Paul New, owner of White Mountain Farm, to convert an old high school building in Mosca into a processing facility for potatoes, Colorado-grown quinoa and other specialty items. They call the joint venture White Rock Specialties.

But it’s their soil regeneration strategies that have really put them on the map.

Standing in an expanse of bright green cover crops, planted at staggered intervals to accommodate rotational grazing by a local rancher, Brendon Rockey talked about how a period of sustained drought that began in the early 2000s led him to dramatically change his farming practices forever.

Like many farmers across rural Colorado, he was suddenly confronted with a shortage of irrigation water. In response, he dropped malting barley from his rotation, a crop that requires 20 inches of water annually, and replaced it with a green manure crop, which saved about 14 inches.

The way his potatoes performed the following year was a revelation. They were more pest resistant and used less water. (He said it now takes him around 12 inches a year to grow potatoes compared to the norm, which is closer to 20.)

Since then, cost savings from reduced inputs, including the elimination of fungicides, has more than paid for the roughly $45 an acre it takes to plant the cover crop mixes, he said…

In the adjacent potato field, he pointed to flowering strips planted to attract beneficial insects. The field was also interspersed with companion crops like peas, vetch, buckwheat and fava beans, which are intended to further enhance insect habitat, soil microbial activity and overall diversification. The additional seed costs him $9 an acre, he said.

“It is so alive out here, it is just buzzing,” he enthused.

Enhanced biological diversity translates to tastier, more vibrant potatoes, due in large part to better nutrient availability and nitrogen uptake, he said.

“The color of my potatoes has improved dramatically,” he noted. “That all comes back to calcium. It’s more available to my potatoes now.”

His production goals have shifted from quantity to nutrition and quality. “As producers, we’ve got yield figured out,” he said. “What I want to do is improve the quality of my potatoes and do it while spending less money to grow them.”

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