Agriculture in the San Luis Valley

by Haley Ruffner
23 November 2022 | [email protected] | 307.205.6628


Nestled between the Sangre de Cristo, Sawatch, and San Juan mountain ranges, the San Luis Valley of southern Colorado is the largest alpine valley in the world. It encompasses nearly 8,000 square miles at an average altitude of 7,664 feet above sea level. It spans over 100 miles from north to south and ranges from 20 to 50 miles wide. 26 million years ago, this dry alpine valley was a massive lake, which eventually drained via the Rio Grande River. Today, the valley gets less than seven inches of annual rainfall, but agriculture is the foundation of its economy. A flight into the Valley reveals a vast landscape of round pivot-irrigated fields, and much of the local traffic comes from trucks loaded heavy with hay or potatoes. Potatoes are the Valley’s primary crop, followed closely by alfalfa, native grass hay, grain crops, and vegetables. While the growing season is too short to support soybeans or corn, the Valley produces a large chunk of Colorado’s hay. 

Snowmelt from the surrounding mountains feeds aquifers beneath the valley floor, which are the Valley’s primary water source. The land is mostly pivot irrigated, although some farms still flood irrigate or use traditional acequia systems with irrigation canals to share water. Farmers’ main focus is using water in the most efficient way as it becomes scarcer, adjusting their irrigation systems to make less water go further. Drought-resistant sagebrush dominates the landscape outside of farms, but all summer acres upon acres of hay fields provide a bright spot of green against the muted desert hues. In spring, the snowmelt is enough to swell the Rio Grande River and create a large stream at the base of the Great Sand Dunes, drawing locals and tourists alike to enjoy the temporary “beach” at the local national park, but by summer on drought years, most land outside the irrigation system is dry.  

The San Luis Valley’s climate is ideal for agriculture in terms of temperature, soil quality, and isolation. Warm, dry days and cool nights make for hay that dries quickly once cut, allowing it to be baled with premium color and leaf retention. Even on wetter years where cut hay gets rained on, it will generally still dry quickly enough to be baled at safe moisture levels and be sold as dairy- or feeder-quality hay. Cold, long winters and the ring of mountains protecting the Valley also reduce the potential for disease and pests. Most local farmers will testify that hay grown in the Valley will test higher than hay grown elsewhere when cut at similar conditions and stages. 

Most of the farmers here have been in the business for generations and take great pride in their products and in the stewardship of the land. Sourcing your hay in the San Luis Valley ensures you’ll get a quality product and supports water-conscious agriculture and farmers who care about the future of the land they work. To the untrained eye, the Valley might look like a tumbleweed-infested desert, but for those who slow down to take in the farmland, the landscape blooms into life with mist from countless pivots sparkling over fields of soft orchard grass and purple alfalfa flowers.   


Haley Ruffner is a Sales Broker for Aden Brook and an accomplished writer on the topic of horses.


Sources and further reading:,wells%20are%20around%20800%20feet.