DOVE CREEK - When the Blue Mountain Café opened here three years ago, the interior had a cow theme. Cow prints on the chairs. Pictures of cows on the walls.Now the diner celebrates sunflowers. A sunflower painting adorns the wall next to a picture of John Wayne. Valances above the windows sport a sunflower pattern.
The change in décor reflects a transformation in this farming community 35 miles northwest of Cortez in Southwest Colorado.
"This isn't cow country," said Abby Blackburn, owner of the Blue Mountain Café. "This is sunflower country now."
In the dry, rugged plains of Dove Creek, farmers traditionally have grown beans, wheat, hay and grass. But with the arrival of a new bioenergy processing plant that converts plants into energy, farmers have added sunflowers to the mix.
As a commodity, sunflowers stand to fetch more money than beans and wheat, which means higher wages for farmers. And the bioenergy plant has created 15 new jobs, including 10 in Dolores County, which has the highest unemployment rate in Colorado at 14.9 percent.
"I think what you're seeing is a renewed level of hope," said Dan Fernandez, extension director for Colorado State University in Dolores County. "It has stopped the erosion of our farm economy."
Agriculture makes up 40 percent of Dolores County's economy, but the average age of farmers in Dolores is 58, Fernandez said. Sunflowers have the potential to attract younger farmers, he said, because they are easy to grow and have a higher income potential.
"Here we have a crop that is drought-resistant and very durable," Fernandez said. "You're seeing a stabilization. People are staying instead of selling out. This is a huge thing for these farmers."
The San Juan Bioenergy plant buys about 15,000 acres worth of sunflowers from 45 farmers in the region. It produces about four tankers full of sunflower oil per month, about 26,000 gallons. The raw oil then is shipped to processing plants to be used for food.
One day, Jeff Berman, chief executive officer for the plant, plans to produce biodiesel fuel from used fryer oil and sunflower oil that does not meet food-grade requirements.
The $5 million plant, which began operating late last year, is exempt from paying county taxes for five years, and it won't have to pay rent until it turns a profit. The plant is part of the 12-acre Dick & Adelene Business Park, which is owned by the Dolores County Development Corp., a nonprofit group created to encourage economic development. In exchange for the tax breaks, the town and county hope the bioenergy plant will aid farmers, provide jobs and support area businesses.
"Every day, we're buying supplies from just about every business in town," said Berman. "We go to many service companies here. We use many in Cortez."
During a recent tour of the bioenergy plant, U.S. Rep. John Salazar, D-Manassa, said he was intrigued by the plant's ability to produce its own heat and power using the byproduct of sunflower stocks. In the future, the plant may use wind and solar panels to help supply its power.
One of President Obama's priorities is to invest in renewable energies, and the bioenergy plant appears to be a good example of the emerging technology, Salazar said.
"I think this is the correct way to bring economic development throughout rural America," Salazar said during his tour. "Green-energy jobs are something that can be really, really good for rural America."
If it's successful, Berman plans to consult with other rural processing plants to help them become more self-sustainable.
Local farmers welcome the crops, which are more lucrative than traditional harvests and are well-suited to the climate.
Dan Warren, a Dove Creek farmer, grew 1,700 acres of sunflowers last summer and planted 700 acres this summer.
"In agriculture, markets go up and down," Warren said. "The more diversified you are, the more likely you are to get a good price for something and stay in business.
"It provides us with another crop for our rotation, and they do well here. It's nice to have another option."
Jack Knuckles, 63, who farms about 2,000 acres north of Dove Creek, including 500 acres of sunflowers, said he barely was breaking even on pinto beans. Sunflowers have been more lucrative, he said.
"I like growing sunflowers, and I think it will be a profitable thing," he said. "We've got to make some money. It's getting to where we might just have to quit."
One sign of how much faith the town has in the future of sunflowers can be seen on U.S. Highway 491. The welcome sign incorporates a sunflower in its design.
"We're not going to be the pinto bean capital of the world anymore," said Town Manager Sonny Frazier. "(Sunflowers) are the crop that is going to make the money for the farmer now."
The fact that pinto beans are taking a backseat isn't exactly good news to Rod Tanner, owner of Midland Bean Co., which has processed, stored and sold pinto beans since 1977.
The volume of beans the company collects locally is down 50 percent, strictly because farmers are planting more sunflowers, he said. But Tanner makes up some of the loss by purchasing beans from Farmington and storing sunflowers for the bioenergy plant.
While Midland Bean Co. has been adversely affected, Tanner hopes the plant succeeds.
"If it works for him (Berman), it's fine," Tanner said. "I hope it works for him. I'm not against competition."
In addition to the economic potential, sunflowers are visually appealing, and residents have adopted the yellow flowers as a symbol for their town. Lines of cars have stopped along the side of the highway to gawk and take pictures during the summer.
"You get 500 acres of sunflowers blooming, and it's quite a sight - it really is," Warren said.