By Anya Kaats
Photo by Matt Lit
Michael Jones, his wife Sarah, and their daughters Opal and Juliette arrived in the San Luis Valley (SLV) at the golden hour after a rainstorm. It was August 7, 2017. They were greeted by a double rainbow. “My favorite number is seven,” explained Sarah, “so it was perfect. We knew we were doing the right thing.”
Michael had grown up in Hooper on his family’s potato farm, moving to Seattle for college to pursue a career in biotech. Sarah, a San Diego native with a degree in communications, always knew they’d move back to the farm one day. “Michael had such a magical childhood and inherited an incredible work ethic. I knew moving back to the farm was part of the deal when we were dating.” Michael claims he was never as certain as Sarah was that they’d move back, but agrees they’ve never had any regrets about leaving the grind of corporate city life behind.
Michael’s family first arrived in Hooper over a century ago, when his great-great-grandfather, Dr. Thomas Jefferson Jones, relocated his medical practice from Salida to Hooper in 1914, opening the town pharmacy soon after. His son, Cuvier Jones, founded Jones Farms in 1925 as a conventional potato farm, taking advantage of the SLV’s unique ecology that makes it perfect for potato farming – a dry, hot climate, with warm days, cool nights, sandy soil, and limited insect concerns.
Two generations after the farm’s inception, in the early 2000s, Cuvier’s grandson Rob Jones, Michael’s father, decided to initiate the labor-intensive, multi-year process to transition the Jones Farm to a certified organic farm. As a trained biologist, Rob was drawn to the solutions organic farming offered regarding sustainability and regenerating the soil.
He understood both conventional and organic potato farming requires tilling, which disrupts the soil’s natural biome. In addition to tilling, conventional agriculture utilizes shorter crop rotations, and requires farmers to purchase dozens of pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides that further degrade the soil.
In the SLV, when soil is stripped of its nutrients and lacks cover crops to hold it in place, it produces unhealthy, Dust Bowl-like conditions. This type of degraded, overworked soil is also stripped of its water-holding capacity, making it of particular concern to the protection and preservation of local water sources. For the Joneses, protecting local water sources is a priority that informs the way they manage their land and run their business, and they speak highly of the Rio Grande Water Leaders Course, which they both completed.
On July 17, a landmark case will be heard from the Sustainable Water Augmentation Group (SWAG), proposing an alternative to the existing Rio Grande Water Conservation District’s local groundwater management plan for Subdistrict 1. Amidst the controversy over water management in the Valley, the Joneses are optimistic, and feel that the SLV is home to a progressive-minded farm base. “I don’t think we get enough credit for that,” Michael shares.
Sarah’s experience in sales and marketing has helped the Joneses diversify their business model, allowing them to collaborate with local farmers and ranchers in ways that benefit everyone, while simultaneously protecting the local ecosystem. “The key is biodiversity, whether it’s our gut health and diet, our soil, our friends, or customers,” Sarah explains. In addition to growing over 20 varieties of potatoes, the Joneses also grow seven varieties of heirloom grains, manage an Airbnb farm-stay, and work with over 30 direct customers, including local rye whiskey producers, local ranches like Blue Range Ranch, and natural products brands like Daily Harvest that purchase the Jones’ cover crops.
“No one wants to end up with a grainery full of fava beans for twenty years!” Michael exclaims, referring to the risks of diversifying. However, Sarah, determined and seemingly fearless, has taken it upon herself to help educate local farmers about the importance of diversification, cold-calling consumer brands and retailers on their behalf to help to set up purchase orders. “If we could convince every farm in the area to have rye growing on their soil in March and April, that would make a huge difference as far as the dust is concerned,” Michael explains. Not only that, but it would also help regenerate the soil and provide an additional source of revenue for farmers who are at risk of having all their eggs, or rather potatoes, in one basket.
The Jones’ potatoes are in so many baskets it’s hard to keep track of them all. Sarah is also the new owner of Hooper Junction on Rt. 17, where she plans to sell local packaged goods and freshly made meals by Angela Quintana of Prep Fuel SLV. She is also working to acquire a grant in order to hire a local artist to paint a mural on the side of the building. On July 29, “Orisons,” an unprecedented 160-acre earthwork by acclaimed multidisciplinary artist Marguerite Humeau, opens on one of the Jones’ unused plots of farmland, featuring kinetic and interactive sculptures that will pay homage to the SLV.
“I can’t help but see the potential and beauty in regenerating both the land and the local community,” Sarah notes. “Can we pull it off? I don’t know,” Michael adds, “but we’re willing to try!” The current Jones generation seems well-suited to carry on the family’s pioneering reputation, taking risks and facing the unknown, forging a path for others to follow.
When potatoes are in season, typically September—March, Jones Farms Organics potatoes can be found at Whole Foods, The Elephant Cloud Market, Simple Foods Market, and Valley Roots Food Hub. To learn more about the farm, visit JonesFarmsOrganics.com.