Water Challenges for Young Western Farmers

When you hear the word “farmer,” what is the first thing that comes to mind? Most people have a preconceived notion of what farming looks like, as well as what is involved in the actual practice of farming. While the average age of an American farmer is 58, and farmers over the age of 65 outnumber farmers under 35 by a ratio of six-to-one, the next generation of farmers is emerging across the country. Their work is yielding joys and challenges previously not experienced, as young farmers face a future impacted by drought, climate change and increasing municipal demands on water supplies.

This recent crop of innovative young farmers is featured in the newly released short film Conservation Generation, presented by the National Young Farmers Coalition (NYFC), an organization that “represents, mobilizes, and engages young farmers to ensure their success.” The four young farmers featured in Conservation Generation are working hard to run successful farms in the arid West, with two of them farming on Colorado’s Western Slope; Harrison Topp of Topp Fruit in Paonia, and Tyler Hoyt of Green Table Farms in Mancos.

One of the major struggles for farmers in this part of the country is the ever-increasing scarcity of water. This challenge requires that farmers find innovative solutions to the water shortages that they face. In blog posts they’ve written for the National Young Farmers Coalition to accompany the video, Topp and Hoyt each explain that picking the right land to farm was a crucial component for ensuring that their farms will have access to water.

“Water needs to be at the forefront of how we operate because it will (hopefully) help to keep us in business,” Hoyt says in the film. Both farms are located close to the headwaters of the rivers and streams that Hoyt and Topp draw from, ensuring that the water used for irrigating their crops is less likely to be contaminated by pollutants than it might be if they were further downstream.

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Tyler Hoyt         Photo Credit: NYFC

The farmers employ irrigation techniques that allow them to conserve and make the best use of the water that they are able to use. For Topp, this involved improving the method for transferring the water they are allowed to take from the Fire Mountain Canal to the orchard.

“We had a beautiful (but totally inefficient) network of hand-dug ditches that delivered water across the orchard,” says Topp, in one of his blog posts about the original irrigation system on his farm. “Stones, dirt, shovels, tarps and metal fragments were used to get the water to flow where I wanted. It could take hours to get the right amount of water kind of close to where I needed it to go.”

According the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, as much as 50 percent of water used for irrigation is wasted due to evaporation, wind, or runoff caused by inefficient irrigation methods and systems. While Topp notes that their new method of irrigation—use of a gated pipe—is not as efficient as he would like, it works well for the orchard, and is an improvement.

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Photo Credit: NYFC

On Green Table Farms, Hoyt employs a host of methods that allow him to make the most of the water that he has access to. “I grow a lot of indigenous crops; those varieties that have been grown out here under dry land conditions for a very long time,” Hoyt explains in the film. “[The use of] drip tape is definitely a huge way that we manage our water so that in those years when we get very little, we can still irrigate.”

The face of farming in the United States is changing. With those changes come new challenges, some of which are the result of  climate change and increasing water scarcity. Young farmers across the country, like those featured in Conservation Generation are optimistic that by working hard, and applying their own creative ingenuity, they can find ways to overcome the issue of water scarcity and keep agriculture alive and growing in the arid West.

Additional information about the Conservation Generation can be found in NYFC’s report, Conservation Generation: How Young Farmers and Ranchers Are Essential to Tackling Water Scarcity in the Arid West; a survey of 379 young farmers in the arid West and recommendations on how their work can best be supported.

If are interested in learning more about managing agriculture and water in Colorado, check out Managing Agriculture and Water Scarcity in Colorado (and Beyond) , a report released by CFWE, in partnership with CoBank, last year.

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Filed under Agriculture, Climate and Drought, Colorado Foundation for Water Education, Environment, Water conservation, Water Supply

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