New report: Innovation & stewardship in the arid West


Here’s a story you probably haven’t heard in the news: Family farmers are leading water conservation efforts in the West. Here are two examples.

  • By building up the level of organic matter in the soil of their California farm, Paul and Elizabeth Kaiser (pictured above with their crew) have drastically cut their irrigation use while increasing their production seven fold compared to similar California farms.
  • In Wyoming, ranchers Pat and Sharon O’Toole have always managed their land with conservation in mind. Along the way, they’ve built strong partnerships with Trout Unlimited, Audubon Wyoming, and The Nature Conservancy—organizations some ranchers once viewed as adversaries.

NYFC_WesternCaseStudiesFINAL_Lower_Page_01Our new report, Innovations in Agricultural Stewardship: Stories of Conservation & Drought Resilience in the Arid West, offers five case studies profiling producers across the Colorado River Basin (an area that spans seven Western states) and beyond who—with curiosity, creativity, and seasons of trial and error—are adapting and even thriving in the drought. This report was created in partnership with the Family Farm Alliance to highlight farmers who are building drought resilience, saving water, & growing good food for all of us.

Read our new report here. 

The West is mobilizing in search of answers to a growing water gap between water supply and demand. Earlier this week the Bureau of Reclamation, the federal agency that manages much of the water infrastructure in the West, released a report that NYFC also collaborated on titled Moving Forward Phase I Report that identifies ways to reduce water stress in the Colorado River Basin.

Now with our latest publication, Innovations in Agricultural Stewardship, we hope to add to the list of solutions. In order to develop smart policy, it is critical to understand the creative ways farmers and ranchers—young and seasoned alike—manage their land. We call on our policymakers to engage farmers as allies in finding innovative solutions that support the health of our land, water, and Western communities.

Sustaining Farming in the Arid West: Stories of young farmers, water and resilience


New Report Highlights Innovative Drought Mitigation & Water Savings by Six Farmers in Four Colorado River Basin States


August 14th, 2014

Download report (PDF)

DURANGO, CO – The National Young Farmers Coalition released a report today highlighting innovative farmers who are adapting to record drought in the arid Southwest. “Sustaining Farming in the Arid West: Stories of young farmers, water and resilience,” demonstrates how Western farmers are saving water, stewarding the land and enhancing productivity in increasingly dry times. (more…)

Mayors, farmers across the west stand together for Colorado River Day


Brad Webb, farmer and owner of Mesa Park Vineyards, Palisade, CO

“Essentially if we didn’t have this river and this water, we wouldn’t have agriculture in this state [of Colorado],” says Brad Webb, a local farmer and business owner of Mesa Park Vineyards in western Colorado. Brad spoke on behalf of beginning farmers for Colorado River Day in Grand Junction, one of five events held yesterday across the west.

July 25th marked the 2nd annual Colorado River Day, the day 92 years ago the Colorado River was renamed from the “Grand”. National Young Farmers Coalition teamed up with Nuestro Rio and Save the Colorado to host events in Denver, Grand Junction, Santa Fe, Phoenix, and Las Vegas. Urban and rural elected officials joined local farmers in support of urban and agricultural conservation as the first and best option to reducing the growing gap between water supply and demand in the west.


Farmers, elected officials, and reporters listen to remarks for Colorado River Day

Catch NYFC on KKCO here

In addition, we launched a month-long campaign to recruit elected officials west-wide to sign a support letter encouraging state and federal leaders to develop and implement actionable proposals through conservation to help reduce dwindling water supply. The pledge comes on the heels of the Bureau of Reclamation Colorado River Basin study which shows that we can generate 3 million acre feet of water through urban and agricultural conservation and reuse alone. That’s enough to supply 3 million households for a year.

Signing onto this support letter so far are  Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, Paonia Mayor Neal Schwieterman, Santa Fe Mayor David Cross, Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild, and San Diego City Council President Todd Gloria, among others.


Mayor Neal Schwieterman of Paonia, CO gives remarks on the vital importance of the Colorado River

“If we work together we can solve a lot of these problems,” said Mayor Neal Schwieterman of Paonia at the Grand Junction event. Mayor Schwieterman represents one of the most diverse and thriving agricultural valleys in Colorado and knows the importance of agriculture to the state’s economy and way of life. The Mayor also represents recreational interests on the Gunnison Basin Roundtable, a group of leaders who meet regularly to tackle regional water issues.

In addition Councilmembers Boeschenstien and Doody of Grand Junction spoke on the importance of riparian health and water quality to the overall health of the river.

“Conservation is the lowest hanging fruit,” said Mayor Schwieterman. As young and beginning farmers, we are working to ensure we do everything possible with conservation first. If we do nothing, we will surely see our farms and our rivers continue to run dry.

For more coverage of the event in other states see Public News Service Santa Fe, the New Mexican, Public News Service CA, among more to come.



U.S. Senate tackles future of Colorado River

Senator Mark Udall

Senator Mark Udall

On Tuesday, the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources Water and Power Subcommittee held a hearing to review findings from the Colorado River Basin Study, which NYFC has been tracking closely. Speakers representing the Bureau of Reclamation, Basin states, and municipal, agricultural, and healthy flows interests presented important Study follow-up items to the Subcommittee, moderated by CO Senator Mark Udall. (See a recording of the meeting here).

4 million irrigated acres of farmland in the Colorado River Basin are at risk as pressures on western waters rise. At the same time, agriculture is the single largest water user in the west, which means as urban demand continues to grow more interests will be turning to rural water users. But no one wants to return to the days of western water wars. Instead, farmers are proactively engaging across borders to develop win-win solutions to a tenuous water future.

Dr. Reagan Waskom, Director of the Colorado Water Institute at Colorado State University, spoke on behalf of western farmers as the co-chair of the Agricultural Conservation and Transfers work-group, one of three work groups created to carry out next steps from the Basin Study. In Waskom’s written testimony to the Subcommittee, he writes, “Local food and fiber production, protecting open space and wildlife habitat, maintaining agricultural jobs and businesses, and preserving western heritage are among the reasons for ensuring there are adequate land and water resources for agriculture production.”

We want to see the future of western agriculture thrive and we know that we need healthy resources to do that. Farmers are willing to do our part to ensure healthy farms and healthy rivers. (Want to show your support? Sign the Colorado River Farmers Pledge today!) According to Waskom, 77% of farmers surveyed by the Colorado Water Institute and its research partners prefer conservation and efficiency as the first and best options to address future water shortages. While barriers to conservation exist, it is in all of our best interest to work on behalf of farmers as stewards of our precious resources. As Senator Udall remarked, “We need to make every drop count.

When policy puts water back into streams & farms, the benefits are tangible


Farm intern Helen at Thistle Whistle Farms in Hotchkiss, CO. Thistle Whistle uses high-efficiency irrigation technology on their diversified operation

Farming is one of the most tangible professions there is. The product of a farmer’s labor is apparent at the end of every work day, with ripening tomatoes on the vine or gallons of milk in the fridge.

Policy, on the other hand, is often the opposite: a handful of law makers gathering in an air conditioned room turning concepts into law. So for farmers, when does policy become tangible?

As we learned last month with the failure of the Farm Bill in the House, policy has a wide-reaching effect on farmers. Beginning farmer education programs, conservation cost-shares and affordable loans are just some of the tangible outcomes of policy for which NYFC is fighting that remain stuck in limbo while Congress decides what’s next for the Farm Bill.


North Fork of the Gunnison River, CO

But the Farm Bill is not the only piece of legislation with tangible effects on our farms and ranches. States and regions, such as the seven Colorado River basin states, are constantly working with policy that matters to farmers. And with another year of harsh drought in the west—and looming predictions of water shortage—much of that policy is focused on water.

On July 16th the Senate Water and Power Subcommittee will host a hearing on the Colorado River Basin Supply and Demand Study, the primary “call-to-action” for matching water supply with demand in the Basin.

At the state-level, Colorado water policy is opening doors to more flexible water use for farmers and conservationists alike. Last year, when the Yampa River nearly ran dry, an innovative water leasing program allowed the Colorado Water Trust to lease water for in-stream flows, benefiting both fish and farmers downstream of the imperiled reach.


Farmer Paul Kehmeier gives a tour of his irrigation system

Additionally, state Senator Gail Schwartz is developing legislation that will incentivize conservation for farmers.

It is a time of change, and our voice matters. If policy ever feels like an enigma to you, just look out on your nearest river or stream. We have the power to protect these vital resources, and are doing so as a growing unified voice.

NYFC is working with Congress, states, and other organizations to ensure a healthy future for farms and rivers both. We are keeping the pulse on the above policy developments. We are also showing our decision makers that young farmers care about our rivers with two upcoming campaigns: the Colorado River Farmers Pledge and a string of west-wide events for Colorado River Day on July 25th.

Look out for more details to come on these campaigns. And in the meantime, keep enjoying those mid-summer tomatoes!

Young farmers hold forum with Congressman Tipton to discuss access to farming, water


Congressman Tipton speaking with James Ranch founder Dave James and farm intern.

On Friday, over 25 Southwest Colorado farmers and farm advocates took time out of a busy harvest day to meet with Republican Congressman Scott Tipton to share hopes and concerns for the future of farming in the Southwest. The forum, organized by NYFC and hosted by the farmers of James Ranch in Durango, was held the day after the surprise failure of the 5-year Farm Bill in the House, of which the Congressman was a supporter.


Over 25 local farmers gather with Congressman Tipton

Farmers from Bayfield to Mancos engaged with the Congressman, a member of the House Agriculture Committee, for over two hours on topics ranging from steep land prices in the southwest to regulations surrounding alternative housing on farms. The Congressman expressed the need for more farmers on the land and emphasized the connection between business and farming. Earlier this year the Congressman formed a bipartisan Small Business Caucus with democratic Congresswoman Pingree, a champion of local foods and farming bills.


Farmers Mike Nolan and Dustin Stein discuss markets and land access in SW Colorado.

Farmer Mike Nolan, owner of Mountain Roots Produce, shared how local agriculture has gained new momentum in SW Colorado with the formation of the Southwest Grower’s Alliance. Dustin Stein, another young farmer and owner/manager of Stubborn Farm & Burke Beef discussed how unique partnerships between established and beginning farmers can help make land accessible.

Dave James, founder of James Ranch, highlighted the opportunities for local agriculture in destination communities such as Durango, and the need to keep land in production with young producers. Following local snacks courtesy of James Ranch, Jennifer Wheeling–one of the James children who returned to work on the ranch–provided a tour of the gardens. Farmers discussed the need for irrigation efficiency in this arid climate; and while water supply varies season to season, ongoing drought remains present on every farmer’s mind.


Farmer Jennifer Wheeling gives a tour of the gardens at James Ranch

Farmers emphasized the need for champions in Congress who can build legislation flexible enough to meet the diverse needs of the small farmer. The Congressman suggested co-hosting a fall event to expand awareness of local foods and offered to connect beginning farmers with volunteers from the SCORE program–a network of business leaders who offer business planning and mentoring to beginning entrepreneurs. Our hope is that Congressman Tipton will become an advocate for beginning and sustainable growers in future farm policy debates.



Farming and water in the West: An Intro

512px-Coloradorivermapnew1You may be noticing our posts on water issues, or our recent Op-Ed on Colorado farmers and water conservation, and perhaps are wondering why NYFC is diving into western water. As the first of many blog posts on this topic, the following paragraphs offer some background.

In most of the U.S., water is relatively abundant. Many states enjoy an average precipitation of 50 or even up to 100 inches annually. Here in the Colorado River basin—where NYFC is working more and more—some regions receive fewer than 3 inches of precipitation a year. The seven states that comprise the basin—WY, UT, CO, NM, AZ, NV and CA—and northern Mexico all depend on the Colorado River to feed a growing population of over 30 million people. In addition to municipal, industrial and recreational uses, the Colorado River irrigates agricultural land that produces over 15% of the nation’s crops.

In simple terms, the future of arid lands agriculture in the West is entirely contingent upon a healthy and resilient Colorado River.

Law of the River

In 1922, Colorado basin states signed the Colorado River Compact, the primary element in what is known as “The Law of the River,” which allocated water among the seven basin states (it wasn’t until 1944 that Mexico was brought in on the share). Included in the law of the river is the “use it or lose it” concept of water rights: water users must put their water to beneficial use, historically defined as agricultural, municipal, or commercial uses, or they lose their rights to that water. The definition of beneficial use is slowly expanding to include uses such as drought mitigation and conservation as seen in this ground-breaking bill passed by CO State Senator Schwartz just this month.

Future of Western Water

Here’s what we’re facing: According to the Bureau of Reclamation’s (BOR) Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study released in December of 2012, the demand for Colorado River water by 2060 could outstrip supply by 3.2 million acre feet—one acre-foot is enough water to feed two households for a year. No matter the scenario considered in the study, we in the West are facing an enormous water deficit. And with 80% of our country’s winter vegetables produced in the Colorado River basin, this story affects us all.

The numbers feel daunting, but many of us in the West see the BOR study as a call-to-action, an opportunity for innovation and collaboration. At NYFC we believe farmers in general, and young farmers in particular are a critical voice in determining how we move ahead in building a resilient water future, and we are working hard to make our voice heard. Stay tuned for continuous updates on the evolving nexus between western water and agriculture and the growing role young farmers are playing in our future.

Colorado’s young farmers ready to join Governor in conservation

Friends, please take a minute to check out my recent Op-Ed published in the Grand Junction Sentinel on Colorado River water conservation. Young farmers need to be at the forefront of the discussion of how to build a smart water future for Colorado and the Colorado River Basin!

Please also note the action at the bottom–sign on in support of water conservation at!


114-001 Colorado’s young farmers ready to join governor in conservation

By Guest Columnist 
Sunday, March 17, 2013

In this year’s State of the State address, Gov. John Hickenlooper declared, “Every discussion about water should start with conservation.”

Following a decision on Jan. 29 made by the Colorado Water Conservation Board, it’s clear that people are listening.  CWCB in near unanimity turned down a request from the Flaming Gorge Task Force to fund further research and discussion into the development of giant new water projects like the proposed Flaming Gorge pipeline.

The pipeline, first proposed by Front Range developer Aaron Million, would have diverted water from Wyoming’s Flaming Gorge Reservoir to Colorado’s Front Range at a cost of $9 billion to taxpayers and, according to a study by Western Resource Advocates, would have resulted in $58.5 million annual losses to the region’s recreation economy by draining one quarter of the flow from the Green River.

The pipeline was vigorously opposed by hundreds of Western Slope businesses, the Colorado River District, seven Western Slope counties and the cities of Grand Junction and Fruita.

The National Young Farmers’ Coalition also opposes the Flaming Gorge pipeline, and any other new diversion projects, until all conservation opportunities have been thoroughly explored. We are in complete agreement with Hickenlooper that water conservation must be our first priority over costly and controversial diversion projects, and we commend him and the CWCB for their decision to avoid a lopsided focus on giant new pipelines.

Young and beginning farmers and ranchers in the United States and Colorado are playing an increasingly crucial role in our nation’s food security, natural resource management and rural economy, and we are eager to take on a major role in meeting water challenges through conservation.

With the average age of farmers in the U.S. now 57 years old, young and beginning producers are the ones who will face the anticipated deficits in water supply that threaten Colorado agriculture.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s thorough Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study illustrates the gap we will confront, predicting a sizeable deficit by 2060. How will we as a state respond?

A new poll commissioned by the business coalition Protect the Flows and conducted by Republican polling firm Public Opinion Strategies and Democratic firm Keating Research, finds Coloradans across the political and geographic spectrum will stand with the governor. An astounding 80 percent of Colorado residents support improved water conservation measures to address the state’s growing water needs (that’s 73 percent of Republicans, 88 percent of Democrats, 95 percent of Western Slope residents and 80 percent of Denver metro residents).

The Bureau of Reclamation bolsters that sentiment in its study, positing municipal, industrial and agricultural water conservation as one of the timeliest and most effective steps we can take to mitigate a deficit crisis. Further, a recent study in which Colorado state government participated indicates that improving the efficiency with which we use water would cost only a quarter of what it would cost on average to ship in more water from rivers with new pipelines.

In addition, 88 percent of Coloradans support state incentives for farmers and ranchers to improve irrigation practices and technology.

One such opportunity could be to launch a program like the Massachusetts Enterprise Grants for Agriculture program, which is modeled after California Farm Link’s Individual Development Account program. These programs provide a matched saving account for beginning farmers.

In the California program, for every $100 a month that a farmer saves, he or she receives $300 more a month from CA Farm Link. This adds up to $9,600 over the two-year program period, allowing the farmer to make essential investments in his or her operation.

The Colorado Water Conservation Board could provide significant leadership in the future of arid-lands agriculture with a similar program and a focus on enhancing water conservation technology and practices, 

Young farmers across Colorado are heartened by the importance Hickenlooper has placed on water conservation. And the recent poll shows that’s exactly what a majority of Coloradans want as well. In fact, 87 percent of us are willing to make significant changes in household activities to reduce our water use by 20 percent in the near-term.

We urge others to show their enthusiasm by visiting and signing a petition to Hickenlooper saying that they, too, are with him on a “conservation first” agenda.

Young and beginning farmers know that conservation and agriculture must go hand-in-hand in this age of limited and diminishing resources. We are most eager to join with the governor and others in the state to mobilize our people and our resources in implementing conservation measures.

With a vast majority of Coloradans supporting conservation over diversion, and incentives to conserve agricultural water, we look forward to playing a major role in building a secure and abundant future for all of us.

The National Young Farmers’ Coalition represents, mobilizes and engages young farmers to ensure their success.  Kate Greenberg works with NYFC on the Western Slope. She can be reached