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.

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.

“I don’t see it as an expense. It’s an investment in my future potato crop,” he explained.

Even if precipitation levels return to normal, Rockey has no plans to go back to his old way of doing things.

“I would have a hard time bringing a grain crop back,” he mused. “If I could do it with diversity and companion crops and still produce a cash crop then I would be intrigued. But you won’t find any monocultures on this farm.”

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.”

“One of my proudest moments was when a farmer who raises 20 circles of potatoes came to me to buy some of mine for dinner because that’s what he wanted to eat,” he added.

Farmers from near and far came out to see these visionary production methods firsthand.

Matt Seger, a neighbor who farms a standard rotation of potatoes, malt barley and canola seed, looks to the Rockeys for inspiration.

“I watch what they do pretty closely and incorporate what I can in my own operation,” he said.

Another neighbor, Ron Kern, a cattleman, has established a synergistic business relationship with the farm.

“I’m feeding my cattle organic hay so I can sell them organic manure as a by-product, and I’m also grazing cattle on some of their land,” he said. “Then I sell the organic beef through Winter Livestock in La Junta.”

Kern has been around long enough to have watched the rise of synthetic fertilizer but now the pendulum seems to be swinging back in favor of fewer inputs and a more holistic approach to natural systems, he said.

“It’s a big circle,” he observed. “If everybody does their part, it works.”

For Michael Thompson, the current president of the Colorado Conservation Tillage Association, which hosts the annual High Plains No Till Conference in Burlington, his primary interest was seeing the companion plantings. That’s something he wants to adopt on his own grain and cattle farm near Almena in Northwest Kansas.

Other guests were urbanites interested in learning more about how their food is produced.

Todd Colehour founded Williams and Graham in Denver, a seasonally inspired craft cocktail bar, but is now at work on something more ambitious. By 2019, he plans to open a new public market in the Stapleton area where customers will shop by choosing recipes rather than a la cart. He vows the market will only carry products grown with regenerative agricultural practices.

“I won’t feature anything where I haven’t been to the farm and seen it for myself,” he added.

Claudia Folska, also of Denver, holds the distinction of being the first blind woman elected to public office in Colorado (she serves on the board for Denver’s bus and rail transit service.) She’s also a producer and host of Cooking in the Dark, a program that appears on Rocky Mountain PBS. The show features popular Colorado chefs cooking while blindfolded — a novel challenge to their skills — while also taking viewers to visit farms across the state so they will be less “in the dark” about where their food comes from.

A future segment will include San Luis Valley culinary star, Kodi Whitehead, the chef at Del Norte’s Windsor Hotel.

Also bringing a combined interest in agriculture and education with her to the field day was Beverlee McClure, president of Adams State University, in Alamosa.

“We are getting ready to kick off an ag and food systems study program that has only been offered in Fort Collins up until now,” she said. The new program will mix on-site learning with on-line courses, allowing undergraduates to get an agriculture degree with a concentration in biology or business without ever leaving the area.

McClure, who was formerly director of New Mexico’s statewide chamber of commerce, said she was excited to bring new educational opportunities to a region with such a rich agricultural history and strong work ethic.