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Water Tour brings farmers together from across Southwest

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Farmers of Southwest CO Young Farmers Chapter gather for a potluck and photo shoot for NYFC film “Resilient”

Below average precipitation combined with warm and dry summers make it difficult for producers to grow enough to make a profit and forecasts of low precipitation patterns suggests this may be a new normal.  With water being a critical resource for managing a successful farm, drought resiliency is an important skill. This week the National Young Farmers Coalition, in partnerships with the Family Farm Alliance, brought together a diverse group of more than 50 farming and ranching professionals  to discuss the question: “What are farmers and ranchers doing to be more resilient in times of drought?”

During the second night of this three-day event, NYFC premiered its new short film,  “RESILIENT: Soil, Water and the New Stewards of the American West” which we launched Monday. Watch the film here. The film was shown to an audience of more than 75 people from the Durango community at the Powerhouse Science Center and was followed by a panel discussion of five regional farmers and ranchers who spurred provocative, cutting-edge discussion about what sustainable agriculture in the West can look like. Krista Langlois blogged about the event at High Country News  and also Ann Adams of Holistic Management International.

This water and soil conservation symposium discussed irrigation efficiencies, soil health, and the big picture context of water policy in the Colorado River Basin.   Delivery efficiencies are the mechanical tools that us humans build, measure, and makes plans around which include sprinklers, drip systems,  and lining canals.   Soil health management encourages the ecological services of healthy soil biology to increase absorption and water storage.  When both are combined there is great  potential for important gains in water conservation to support the challenges of limited water in the West.

Tour participants collaborate during breakout sessions

Our group visited James Ranch, a 400 acre  grass fed dairy and beef operation near Durango, Colorado and discussed the water saving opportunities of rotational grazing using lightweight movable electric fencing.  The following morning we traveled to Towaoc, Colorado and toured Ute Mountain Farm and Ranch, a 7700 acre farm that uses 109 center pivots to produce their own “Bow and Arrow Brand” of white corn, beef, and hay.  The farm and ranch is a study of efficiency using pivot sprinklers and advanced telemetrics to optimize irrigation without overwatering.

Bruce Whitehead, the director of the Southwest Water Conservation District explained the irrigated use of water in southwestern Colorado and  the diverse and critical use of our rivers.  Eric Kuhn, General Manager of the Colorado River District, zoomed back for a look at the entire Colorado River Basin, weaving together the complicated needs of every basin state and the challenges faced by deepening drought including the balancing act to keep both Lake Mead and Lake Powell above critical minimum levels.  Colorado River water supplies irrigation water, electric power, and water for suburban uses from Denver to L.A., no small task for a river running through 7 arid western states and two countries.

Allen Phelps of Ute Mountain Farm and Ranch describes the efficient center pivot irrigation

During the symposium we also heard from Pat O’toole and George Whitten who both own grass fed ranching operations in Wyoming and Colorado respectively.  Their hard labor and innovative rotational grazing methods are improving watersheds, stewarding tens of 1000’s of acres of land, and creating new markets for high quality grass fed meats.  Michael Melendrez, a soil scientist from Los Lunas, New Mexico explained the molecular basis of how healthy soils absorb water more effectively.  There was also four concurrent workshops: “Soil health and diversified vegetable production” led by Mike Jensen, “Grazing Cropland: challenges and opportunities”  with George Whitten, “Farm and Ranch Planning for Drought Resilience” with Ann Adams, and “Irrigation efficiency and land stewardship”  with Pat O’Toole, all of which brought about insights and collaborative dialogue.

The symposium also highlighted the work of several vegetable producers including Paul Kaiser of Singing Frogs Farm who challenged the assumptions about what healthy soil is; conventional wisdom assumes 2.5 – 3% soil organic matter (SOM) is healthy but at his farm using no till production he has achieved SOM above 9% in less than 5 years.   Another example of combining irrigation efficiency and soil health is a 500 acre potato farm operated by  Brendon Rockey of Rockey Farms. Brendon manages cover crops with pivot sprinklers and, by his innovative management  has dramatically reduced water consumption by 40% on average while improving crop quality and yields.

Group at Ute Mountain Farm and Ranch

Irrigated lands exists on a vast scale in the West and to dramatically change how water is conserved, it will take the cooperation of large producers, ranchers, and small farmers.  By the end of our time together the technical conversations shifted to a critical social question:  “How do we evolve our networks to better learn and teach these techniques?”

Amongst the wide diversity of attending farmers and ranchers, from all scales, backgrounds and ages, the most poignant reality during three days of collaboration was the passion and enthusiasm for the work.  Everyone was a professional but they were also curious, innovative, and courageous, motivated to share and willing to take the time to connect, even with a busy farm schedule at home.  That sense of community and camaraderie may be the most important tool in our toolbox for water conservation in the West.
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