West Otero Conservation District named Diamond A Farm as Conservationist of the Year at annual meeting held Nov. 13, 2017
In the mid 1980’s Bret Keffeler and Charles Chavez worked together at Victorio Land and Cattle Co. Victorio, at the time, grazed 100,000 head of cattle, farmed, and traded commodities on the Chicago Board of Trade. Alumni of this agricultural behemoth had roots in Rocky Ford in that Jerry Keffeler, Bret’s father, ran a cattle auction and Ken Hood, our county assessor, managed one of their Arizona cattle ranches. An interesting fact is that the original Diamond A ranch in New Mexico (1887) was owned by George Hearst, father of newspaper man William Randolph Hearst. By 1980’s the market conditions changed and the cattle operation faded.
Bret Keffeler and Charles Chavez started Diamond A Farms concentrating on farming in Arizona. Over the years they continued to expand their operation. By 1994 they were looking for land in the Rocky Ford area and began farming here by 1995. It was in 1999 that the younger Frank Milenski began managing the Rocky Ford operation. Lands owned by Frank Milenski, the grandfather of Frankie, became part of Diamond A in 1999. Phillip Chavez purchased the Keffeler part of the business in 2009. He moved to Rocky Ford on a more permanent basis following the death of his farm manager Frank Milenski in 2014. Over the years, Diamond A has purchased many other farms along the Catlin Canal in the Rocky Ford area and is now one of the largest farming operations in the Arkansas Valley. They continue to expand and refine their operation in the Valley.
Phillip Chavez grew up in the Arizona desert, he completed his undergraduate work at the agricultural school of Cornell University in Ithaca, N. Y. He earned a master’s degree from Thunderbird School of Global Management (affiliated with Arizona State University) in Glendale, Ariz. He grew melons in Mexico and Central America, and has traveled to 45 countries to establish American agricultural markets abroad.
In many ways, the Rocky Ford farm is a traditional operation, managed in a traditional way, but on a larger scale. The scale of operation is important. A current farm area of 200 acres was once divided into many fields of different shapes, sizes, and elevations. Now it is one laser leveled area and managed as one. The main crop is alfalfa hay, long the most reliable crop in the Arkansas Valley. Diamond A has developed its own varieties of hay and managed to coax hay grown from seed from the Arizona desert, where the growing season is year-round, to grow in Rocky Ford as well.
Diamond A participates in the Arkansas Valley Super Ditch, a corporation formed in 2008 by farmers on several different canals, including the Catlin. To put water into the programs, land must be fallowed. This fallowed land can be planted to cover crops allowing the soil to rest. The consumptive use portion of the water is leased to another user. The lease income can then pay for improvements throughout the farm. The Super Ditch is a winning situation for the land, farms and eventual municipal buyer.
Conservation is a priority to the Diamond A operation. 1. Investment in irrigation infrastructure is a priority with more drip irrigation, sprinklers, pipelines, and concrete ditches already completed or planned. They are always trying to do better with irrigation. 2. Laser leveling of land saves water and energy. Improved germination and yield is a visible result. 3. Cover Crops have proven to be the major factor in soil conservation. Each year 300 to 500 acres are planted in cover crops. The organic material is incorporated into the soil. The result has been considerable water saving and 20% improvement in organic material. 4. Every effort is made for No Till or Limited Till on the land. This has increased the amount of water infiltration and carry capacity in the soil and increases organic matter retention. 5. Burning of excess straw and stubble has become a rarity since burning causes a loss of nutrients in the soil and greater erosion. Leaving the stubble holds the soil and adds to the organic matter. 6. Water quality is protected by monitoring fields for proper application of fertilizer, water, pesticides and herbicides. No chemicals are applied through the existing flood irrigation systems. Thus the water that returns to the river is cleaner and less contaminated with chemicals. Water samples are taken up and down the river starting at Pueblo Reservoir and along their irrigation system so they know what changes are occurring and what condition the water is in when it returns to the river.
Diamond A is politically active. They are working with Senators Orrin Hatch, Cory Gardner, and Michael Bennett to pass legislation that will change the rules about using water on hemp and expanding farming opportunities for this versatile crop. Also, they are working with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to improve the quality of water in Timpas Creek and the Arkansas River.
It is easy to see why Diamond A Farms has been selected as the Conservationist of the Year. Their practices read as a NRCS recommended guide to conservation. Congratulations to Phillip Chavez and Diamond A Farms