Across most of the arid West, drought has been the norm for the last 15 years. The majority of young farmers and ranchers in this region have never farmed in non-drought conditions, which means they are uniquely focused on creative solutions to water conservation. NYFC’s new report, Conservation Generation: How Young Farmers And Ranchers Are Essential to Tackling Water Scarcity in the Arid West, paints a picture of these young farmers, their approach to water, and the challenges they face.
To gather data for the report, NYFC surveyed 379 young farmers in the arid West and hosted eight focus groups (thank you to everyone who participated!). Survey respondents were asked questions about their chief agricultural concerns as well as their approach to water conservation and their engagement with and knowledge of water policy and government programs related to conservation.
Water, drought, and climate change are the top agricultural concerns of young farmers in the West. Eighty-two percent of survey respondents listed water availability/access as one of their concerns;
Young farmers prioritize water conservation, and the vast majority (94%) are already conserving water;
Building healthy soil is the most common on-farm water conservation strategy;
Federal cost-share programs are not reaching young farmers in the West;
Perceptions of “use it or lose it” discourage on-farm conservation.
Western agriculture and water scarcity are regional issues of national importance; the Colorado River, a focus area of this report, flows through the Rockies toward the Gulf of California while irrigating 15% of the nation’s crops and 85% of its winter produce. As much as 80% of water used by humans in the Colorado River Basin is devoted to agriculture, so on-farm water conservation efforts are important in any conversation about water scarcity.
As the report indicates, young farmers in the West are dedicated to water conservation but also feel threatened by water scarcity and other serious challenges, such as access to land and capital. While high land prices and lack of access to capital are major challenges faced by young farmers and would-be farmers across the country, in the arid West where irrigated land comes at a premium, access to water compounds these barriers. Removing barriers that keep young farmers from succeeding is crucial as the average age of the American farmer climbs above 58, and farmers over 65 outnumber farmers under 35 by a ratio of six-to-one.
Conservation Generation outlines a series of recommendations to better support young farmers both within the Colorado River Basin and across the West that includes protecting irrigated farmland, increased education and outreach to the young farmer community, strengthening incentives for on-farm water conservation and efficiency, and elevating soil health as an essential tool for resilience.
According to NYFC western water program director Kate Greenberg, protecting our national food and water supply will require a deeper commitment to young farmers.
“If we fail to adequately invest in young farmers, we risk loosing a generation of water stewards, and land currently farmed will likely fall out of agricultural production and be fallowed, developed, or consolidated,” Greenberg said. “All of those outcomes will impact not only our water supply but our food security.”