Dispatches from the River: Learning from the Ancestral Puebloans

The Dolores river, one of the tributaries of the Colorado River, flows through the Four Corners region of South West Colorado, and many farmers rely on it for irrigation. But centuries ago, another form of agriculture thrived in this region. The Ancestral Pueblo people a thousand years ago, grew many varieties of corn relying only on the moisture that fell from the sky in the form of rain or snow.

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For the past 10 years The Crow Canyon Archaeological Center outside of Cortez Colorado, has been working with descendants of those ancestral Puebloans, to recreate those farming practices and to see what lessons can be learned about farming and water.

Paul Ermigiotti of the Crow Canyon Center Pueblo Farming Project, says that the Ancestral Pueblo people and their descendants in this area, use a technique called dry land farming – relying only on precipitation, which can range from 8 to 14 inches a year.

“Most of our soils are wind blown soils that have a lot of capacity to hold moisture, but since we’re lacking in ground moisture, that moisture has to come from the sky.  So if we get plentiful winter moisture, snow etc., that moisture will be stored in the ground and then we get the summer monsoons which is about this time, middle/late July into August, then the plant has enough moisture in the ground to germinate and grow to the first stages and then by the time it gets to the reproductive stages, tasseling, pollinating, that’s about when the monsoons come, which is what that corn needs.”

The project aims to help the Hopi people preserve ancient knowledge about farming, as well as helping them educate the next generation of Pueblo farmers. But in addition to its historical and cultural significance, The Pueblo Farming Project has a broader reach. Ermigiotti says that one major lesson to be learned from the project is the benefits of genetic diversity among the corns. The Hopi people had somewhere between a dozen and 17 different types of corn, with variations in color or starch texture. Today there are fewer corn plants being grown, with an increasing number of GMO varieties. Ermigiotti says that makes farmers and their crops more vulnerable.

dry farming corn“So the idea is that if you’ve got this genetic diversity available, if farmers wanted to, they’re not so dependent on one type of corn where if you get a weed or a pest it’s going to wreak havoc on the whole field.”  The corn grown in the 5 gardens on the Crow Canyon campus comes from varieties of seeds that are used by the Pueblo farmers in their own fields. This area had a good winter, with plenty of snowfall and now they’re waiting for the monsoons to come to finish off the crop. “We had an excellent winter, a very dry early summer and we’re just counting on hopefully these monsoons coming through.”

KGNU News Director Maeve Conran is on the Colorado River this week with the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources, meeting people impacted by changes in water flows due to water diversions to the Front Range and climate change. We’re featuring these stories in this series Dispatches From The River.

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