Building a Lasting, Productive System

Published online: Dec 20, 2018 Articles Dave Bergmeier
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Source: High Plains Journal 

Third-generation potato grower Brendon Rockey likes to help teach and show producers how to improve their farm health with successful biotic methods. Rockey Farms is located in south-central Colorado in the San Luis Valley.

Brendon said Rockey Farms began the process of using less chemicals and fertilizers. They used compost and cover crops. Because their operation is in a region of Colorado that only averages about 6 inches of rain a year, Rockey Farms has to pull irrigation water from the San Luis Valley aquifer.  Preserving as much water as they can helps control their costs and using cover crops enables the soil to retain it longer.

Cover crops improve soil health, which contributes to water efficiency.

At Rockey Farms, a cover crop is used to replace barley, a major crop in San Luis Valley, because of water resources.

Chickpeas and hairy vetch have been among the popular cover crops in his operation as well as plant species that make the cover crop successful.

A commitment to soil health requires regular evaluation, he said. The process is philosophical and yet has to be practical.

“If it doesn’t work in the real world what difference does it make?” Rockey said.

The process also requires re-evaluation.

“What else can we do?” Brendon said, adding that further study got him to thinking if he could add manure it might help fertilizer and make the soil healthier. The one catch was that the Rockeys did not have livestock. “We starting working with a rancher and he put grazing cows. We were able to get paid pasture rent and provided him with a place to graze. For both of to us it was value-added.”

The livestock’s manure when combined with the cover crops was able to improve the soil health. Grazing livestock on a cover crop stimulates biological activity and mineralizes nutrients, which improves soil health.

His biotic management plan includes flower strips that encourage natural pollinators. Pesticides are not used on Rockey Farms. Flowers provide a nectar hub for beneficial insects—predatory insects and parasitoids—to establish populations that contribute to pest management.

Seed potatoes Rockey Farms grows must meet certain disease tolerances and the beneficial insects contribute to meeting these tolerances without the use of pesticides.

On Rockey Farms, biological inputs like companion crops, livestock, green manure and flower strips replace synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides and insecticides.

It took about 20 years to get Rockey Farms to where it is now, Brendon said, but he also adds that each farm is different. When he travels, he tells listeners each case is different and because their main crop is specialty potatoes it requires a different process. 

“Raising potatoes is the toughest soil health building challenge. It is hard to build soil aggregates and structure with the soil disturbance required to grow potatoes,” he said. “This is the reality and it requires devoting more time to other aspects of the biotic farming system.”

Much of their certified seed potatoes go to growers in Colorado, New Mexico and Kansas. Oregon and Maine are also important markets. The operation produces year-round certified seed potatoes in its greenhouse, which is also managed with a biotic approach.

The transition to a healthier soil approach might be much shorter for most operators. Ultimately farmers have to decide what is best for them and their operation, he said.

Known for his interactive presentations, he often uses a hands-on experience to help provide producers with a tangible way to see how soil health can work for them. Rockey will be a presenter at Soil Health U and Trade Show, Jan. 23 to 24, 2019, at the Tony’s Pizza Event Center in Salina, Kansas. Visit to register today.