Colorado fruit orchard sees long-term success through EQIP project

By Anne Blankenbiller and Steve Ela

Steve Ela is the fourth generation of Ela Family Farms. Located on the western slope of the Rocky Mountains outside of Hotchkiss, Colorado, this 99-acre organic fruit farm is dedicated to growing certified organic peaches, apples, pears, plums and cherries.

Over the years, Ela has worked to change irrigation on the orchard from furrow to sprinkler and drip. He has partnered with the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program for a variety of projects on the farm, all related to the irrigation. EQIP funding has helped fund filtration, main lines and actual field lines for drip systems.

As an orchard farmer, Ela knows that reaping what you sow can be a long-term venture. This year, he is finally able to see the success of a project involving EQIP funding that started a few years ago.

In 2009, the Ela’s embarked on a major project to plant a new 5-acre peach block on the farm. These trees are just now starting to come into the height of production. Through an EQIP cost sharing contract, Ela was able to install subsurface drip lines for the 5 acres, including three lines per row of trees, which allows them to also water their cover crop (something Ela uses to promote soil fertility).

The system included top manifold lines to feed each individual drip line, and it was broken into two valve sets. “We have automated valves on that system wired to a digital controller so that the drip system automatically turns on and off several times a day in order to keep the soil for the trees at an optimal water content,” Ela said.

The installation included about 900 feet of 6-inch main line to feed water to that block as well as to complete a loop for the farm’s main lines for the entire 100-acre farm. They also installed about 900 feet

of 10-inch line to serve as an overflow line for water that is not fed through the pressurized irrigation system and upgraded the sand filter system to meet the needs of the other drip blocks as well as the new one.

The EQIP funding provided cost sharing for the 5 acres of drip, manifold lines, main lines to serve that block, and the bypass line for the excess water. It included cost of installation as well as parts and supplies.

Without this project, Ela said this block of trees would have been planted with flood (furrow) irrigation. The drip system provides uniformity of application and improves his ability to maintain soil moisture content. “With drip, we simply turn on the valve and the entire block is watered uniformly. We certainly see the result in more uniform tree growth, better fruit size and better cover crops,” Ela said.

According to Ela, the process for applying for EQIP in his area is straightforward and easy. It takes prior planning to meet the cutoff dates and ensure paperwork is submitted on time. “When we are planning a block, we talk to the NRCS staff that summer or fall before and that seems to work well,” Ela said.

New peach crop on Ela’s 5-acre peach block Photo credit: Steve Ela

For the 5-acre peach block, Ela says the biggest hurdle was getting the design done because it has to be done by a licensed engineer. “Jay Robbins at Irrigation-Mart was able to do that design for us, and the local NRCS engineer signed off on the design,” Ela said. “Jay made it a very smooth process!”

According to Ela, EQIP funding has been extremely useful both for water savings and for water quality since that area is a contributor of selenium and salinity into the Colorado River basin.

Anne Blankenbiller is the managing editor for the Irrigation Association and is the editor-in-chief of Irrigation Today magazine. She has worked with the IA for nearly nine years proofing and editing the technical publications, working remotely from her home in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Steve Ela is the operations manager and a partner of Ela Family Farms. He is the

fourth generation of his family to manage this farm. Ela was recently appointed to the National Organic Standards Board, was president and is on the board of the Valley Organic Growers Association, served as president of the Western

Colorado Horticultural Society, served on the Colorado Agriculture Commission and has served on numerous other boards and organizations. 15

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