Fields here are draped over hillsides and wrapped around sandstone canyons like brown and green quilts. Farm machinery rolls along county two-lanes, filling them from shoulder to shoulder. Houses of the hunker-down school of architecture sit here and there, each surrounded by a scruff of thirsty trees.
This is Dove Creek, Colorado, the Pinto Bean Capital of the World. The tourism and recreation and amenity-migrant boom that has infected much of Colorado zoomed right past Dove Creek on its way to Telluride, Moab, and Durango – all within a couple hours’ drive. The median home price hovers under $100,000. On average, families here make about $14,000 less per year than the rest of the country; more folks are veterans than college grads; and dry bean farming is the number one industry.
But Dove Creek is poised to get a boost from the global economy.
For the past few years, San Juan Bioenergy has been planning and building a biofuels plant in Dove Creek. In order to feed the plant, some 15,000 acres have been planted with sunflowers, and more are on their way. When the plant opens this fall, with about a dozen employees, biodiesel will not be its main product, however, food oil will be. Instead of fueling cars, Dove Creek’s new crop will fuel snacks. Thanks to a greater demand for non-trans fats, big chip companies like Frito-Lay have started switching to sunflower oil for their products. That’s pushed sunflower oil prices up (they’ve more than tripled since 2000), inspiring San Juan Bioenergy to refocus its mission.
Sunflowers aren’t the only yellow things bringing change. With uranium prices surging, long-shuttered uranium mines in the canyons near here are re-opening. Dove Creek was on the edge of the last yellowcake boom, decades ago. Now, about 30 miles across the Great Sage Plain to the southwest, the only operating uranium mill in the country has just recommenced processing uranium ore. And Dove Creek’s remaining crop of uranium miners are going back underground.
I drove through Dove Creek recently and was startled by the sunflower fields. They were dried up and brown, but still lovely in a certain way. Denison Mines had turned the school of nearby Egnar into its headquarters. And, perhaps a sign of a political change, a great big, handwritten OBAMA sign stood on the edge of one of the new sunflower fields.
It all made me wonder: If sunflowers take over pinto beans as the main crop here, what becomes of the Pinto Bean Queen of Dove Creek?
And then there was this sign, which I'm still trying to figure out: