Crucial to the success of Colorado’s Water Plan—released in draft form in December—will be our ability to use limited water resources more efficiently. Recently the Your Water Colorado Blog looked at municipal water conservation achievements, and now we turn to agriculture—the state’s largest water user—to explore how ag producers are shoring up to face scarcity now and into the future. Kate Greenberg of National Young Farmers Coalition guest blogs on their new film “RESILIENT,” and the water efficiency benefits gained when farms and ranchers focus on soil health.
By Kate Greenberg
No one needs telling that water in the West is scarce: We breathe it everyday, the dry air so thin it cracks under the hot alpine sun. But as new pressures come down on our water—from population growth to climate variability and extended drought—what we need are more stories that share solutions. What are real people doing to turn scarcity into abundance?
A new short film recently released by the National Young Farmers Coalition sets out to tell such stories. The film, “RESILIENT: Soil, Water and the New Stewards of the American West,” uses animation to illustrate the context of the Colorado River Basin. It then zooms in on farmers and ranchers across western Colorado who are saving water while enhancing productivity by refocusing on soil health and investing in stewardship practices. This requires a slight shift in mindset, from, as farmer Brendon Rockey puts it, focusing solely on yield (quantity) to focusing on the health of the land that grows the food (quality)—which usually brings the quantity along with it.
Among those interviewed in the film: Brendon Rockey, a third-generation potato grower in the San Luis Valley who saves water by rotating cover crops through his crop circles; Cynthia Houseweart, owner of Princess Beef in Hotchkiss who hasn’t tilled her fields in 20 years, keeping intact the microbes, nutrients, water and carbon that thrive in healthy soil; and Randy Meaker, a wheat and corn grower in Montrose who is integrating smart technology with soil health management and efficient irrigation. These farmers and ranchers integrate practices that uphold multiple values on their operations. They do it not only for the health and resilience of their farms today, but for the decades to come.
The National Young Farmers Coalition (NYFC) was founded in 2010 to ensure the success of the next generation of farmers. Since then, NYFC has grown to a network of more than 50,000 farmers, ranchers and supportive consumers and over 24 farmer-led chapters nationwide. NYFC has successfully advocated for Farm Bill funding for beginning farmers; collaborated with the USDA Farm Service Agency to start a microloan program; trained land trusts nationwide to protect working farmland; and recently launched a new campaign to add farmers to the Public Service Student Loan Forgiveness Program. In addition, in the West we are elevating water stewardship that ensures young farmers will have the resources they need—and the incentives to be good stewards of those resources—well into the future. The film “RESILIENT” is one more means toward that end.
As more and more people move to western cities, the gap between our water supply and demand multiplies. Many cities and states are taking action to bridge that gap: Colorado is writing a state water plan; Las Vegas finished drilling a new intake pipe under Lake Mead; and Arizona farmers are voluntarily forgoing portions of their irrigation rights to help boost Colorado River storage upstream.
Most troubling is that many cities are looking to farmers to fill the gap. While agriculture is the largest water consumer in the West—and in the Colorado River system in particular—it is also an industry comprising some of our best land and water stewards. The more we drain the land of its water, the more people we lose who are most closely connected to it. And the fewer opportunities young western farmers will have to grow food and make a living off the land.
Young people across the country are striving to enter careers in farming. But the challenges they face are immense. According to the 2012 USDA Agricultural Census, the average age of the American farmer is now 58. With less than 6 percent of farmers under the age of 35, young people are not getting into agriculture fast enough to fill the gap older farmers will leave when they retire. Nearly 400 million acres of working lands are expected to change hands in the next couple of decades. Who will take on stewardship of that land if we are at risk of losing a generation of farmers? Who will produce our food? And if we continue pumping water off the land, with what water will we grow it?
We need farmers, ranchers and supportive consumers to band together and demand better ways to grow our food and manage our land and water, ways that support young people entering the field. Consumers have a huge role to play, first and foremost through conservation. Conserving water not only supports the environment, it helps keep farmers and ranchers on the land and Colorado mainstays like Palisade peaches rolling through our groceries and markets. Water connects us all, and we must all step up to steward it wisely.
Our farms and farmers, our conscious consumers, our ability to turn scarcity into abundance—and to do so together—this is our resilience.
“RESILIENT” runs at 10 minutes, 14 seconds. It was produced in partnership with the Lexicon of Sustainability and is a tool to spark discussion. The National Young Farmers Coalition encourages anyone to host a screening, either as its own event or paired with an existing event. If interested, please fill out this webform or email firstname.lastname@example.org. To find out more about NYFC or to get involved email email@example.com or visit youngfarmers.org.
Kate Greenberg travels the West organizing networks of young farmers and ranchers as Western Organizer for the National Young Farmers Coalition. She also advocates for supportive policy and promotes land and water stewardship at the local and landscape scales. Her writing can be found in such works as Edible Santa Fe, and she recently helped publish the short film on water conservation titled “RESILIENT: Soil, Water and the New Stewards of the American West.” Kate sits on the board of directors of the Quivira Coalition and lives in Durango, Colorado.