This is the first installment in a blog series featuring young farmers on the frontlines of climate justice and water stewardship. The water campaign will be hosting a new blog every few months. Stay tuned for the next!
Selwyn Justice–a 33 year old father, operator of Justice Brothers Ranch, and proud political advocate–is on the frontlines of our water and food future. He operates his family’s generational farm land northwest of Phoenix, known beyond state boundaries for their citrus varieties. While their citrus orchard is the longest continually operated in the state, the family–like many Arizona producers–have grown cotton, alfalfa, and raised cattle on hundreds of acres over the years. He is facing a future, however, where Arizona farmers may not have the water to produce food in the years to come.
The Western U.S is experiencing rapidly declining water levels in Lakes Powell and Mead, signaling the arrival of intensifying climate change and persistent drought. Water for these lakes come from the Colorado River, the lifeblood of the West, which provides water to seven U.S. states, Mexico, and dozens of tribes, irrigating millions of acres of essential farmland.
In August of this year, the Bureau of Reclamation announced a Tier 2 shortage on the Colorado River, which means a 21% reduction in Arizona’s supply. To meet this mandate in Arizona, the biggest cuts will come from the biggest users–farms and ranches (Jones, 2022).
Due to worsening droughts, Selwyn has committed to shift from water intensive crops and practices, to more conservation minded ones. He also farms fewer acres and has made 40 acres of his family’s land available to young and beginning farmers to start their own farms.
By working alongside these producers, Selwyn recognizes that young and beginning farmers are able to build their farm’s foundations with conservation at the center and adapt more easily as growing and market conditions change. Selwyn’s personal journey of adaptation has not come without challenges. Nevertheless, he sees the value in making necessary changes before it’s too late. He compares his experience as a multi-generation farmer with the young farmers he supports.“The difference is they have a canoe and I’ve got a cargo ship. A cargo ship that’s been running for 100 years in one direction. I can’t just dip my paddle in the stream and turn around.” He has to work to course correct.
Right now, what happens on the fields and among decision makers can make the difference between the Colorado River’s long-term sustainability or eventual collapse. Young and Black, Indigenous and other people of color (BIPOC) farmers have a vital role in securing a viable water future.
Selwyn also works with other growers in his region, encouraging them to reimagine their operations in ways that support climate adaptation and water conservation. He and others are demonstrating that it can be economically viable to diversify and urges his fellow growers to employ more aggressive conservation strategies because water insecurity in the west “is not an engineering problem that can be solved. It is a reality that we are confronting and will continue to confront.”
It’s time to weave a new mosaic of agriculture in the west and producers need to be at the table to build our shared future. It is essential that farmer voices shape public policy, so that those closest to the challenges can develop the best solutions. Going to policy meetings since the age of five, Selwyn now sits on his local irrigation and electrical districts, the Governor’s Arizona Citrus Research Council and serves as Vice President of Maricopa County Farm Bureau, as well as Young Farmers’ Policy Committee. He understands that farmers can not be removed from politics, because their lives are intimately shaped by it.
Policies and funding that incentivize more environmentally conscious practices in agriculture can help farms adapt to the current and future water cuts. Incentives for practices like planting cover crops to lock moisture in the soil, transitioning to agroforestry that integrates shade, and growing more drought tolerant crops can improve on-farm water management. Transitions like these do come at a cost and the federal government is showing a willingness to help pay for at least some of them. The recently passed Inflation Reduction Act sets aside nearly $20 billion for climate-smart agricultural practices and $4 billion for drought relief in the West (Qiu, 2022).
Farm bill conservation programs, managed by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), can also cover the costs of these practices, but these programs are underutilized by young farmers and farmers of color. These farmers face a number of challenges using USDA resources: BIPOC farmers have experienced historic and ongoing discrimination from USDA, small farms are often not targetted for conservation funds, and/or first generation farmers may not know the programs even exist. In fact, 71% of respondents in the Young Farmers’ 2022 national survey reported being unfamiliar with USDA programs, and 26% had applied but were denied.
USDA needs to evolve to ensure that more BIPOC and beginning farmers are getting the support they need from USDA to adapt to the increasingly variable conditions in the west and around the country. Climate and water policies should focus on expanding and supporting the number of farmers already using conservation practices while making it easier for other farmers to transition. Right now, very little if any funding is going towards tribes’ traditional agriculture and conservation practices. Tribes whose traditional practices have effectively grown food in the arid Southwest for hundreds of generations should be at the forefront and empowered to strengthen their tribal food sovereignty.
In Arizona, across the West and United States, farmers are working tirelessly to supply our food needs and respond to our climate crisis. How they meet the challenges, harness opportunities, and are supported, will not only shape the future of agriculture in the United States, it will shape our lives. Farmers in the Colorado River Basin are critical to addressing our dwindling water resources, food insecurity, and producer populations. By working collaboratively and swiftly, we can overcome the obstacles in implementing sufficient water conservation in agriculture by ensuring funding for projects and practices that help feed our communities, are focused on conservation and restoration, resource the next generation of producers, and guarantee clean water for generations to come.
Jones, B. (2022, August 20). The Colorado River Drought is coming for your winter veggies. Vox. Retrieved November 2, 2022, from https://www.vox.com/science-and-health/23310631/colorado-river-drought-arizona-california-farms
Library of Congress. (2022, September 16). H.R.5376 – 117th Congress (2021-2022): Inflation reduction act of 2022 … Retrieved November 2, 2022, from https://www.congress.gov/bill/117th-congress/house-bill/5376
Qiu, L. (2022, September 26). Federal government’s $20 billion embrace of ‘climate smart’ farming. The New York Times. Retrieved November 2, 2022, from https://www.nytimes.com/2022/09/26/us/politics/climate-smart-farming-agriculture-department.html