Water is essential to farmers’ success, and it does not just impact farmers—access to clean water impacts everyone, everywhere. Water stewardship in agriculture must involve far more than water conservation, it must involve holistic approaches to soil health, grazing, rangeland and forest management, watershed health, and the centering of Indigenous knowledge, also known as Traditional Ecological Knowledge.
Through our Water Fellowship and Generations for Water Campaign, we are highlighting the importance of water stewardship and the farmer leaders who model it. We also work with these farmer leaders to ensure their voices are heard and their expertise is valued in decision making spaces such as regional water boards. Since 2020, we have helped develop dozens of leaders in New Mexico and Colorado, many of whom have entered water leadership roles in their communities. Their voices are shaping decisions that will impact agriculture for decades, locally and nationally.
As a coalition, we envision a just agricultural future—a future we can move toward while at the same time acknowledging a distrust among many farmers for policy making institutions, which originated in violence and oppression and continues today. By connecting farmer leaders with policy makers, we aim to impact near-term and long-term policy change while building trust with institutional leaders who hold the power to change food and agricultural policies—transforming agriculture in service to our communities and our land and water.
At our Water Fellowship retreat this year, Water Fellow Gabriela Galindo, a justice-oriented advocate and beginning farmer, spoke beautifully to the importance of water stewardship and what it means to her. “Water is Life. It is a simple value with profound implications. The most meaningful water stewardship involves deeply understanding the interconnectedness and interactions of water and ecosystems far beyond human centric uses and needs. Ultimately, water stewardship is the stewardship of plants, people, soil, ecosystems, life and Tonantzin, our Mother Earth.”
Taking Our Message to D.C.
At our March Young Farmer Fly-in to Washington, D.C., farmer leaders like Gabriela had the opportunity to speak truth to power. Fellows met with various Senate and House members and staff, as well as officials at the USDA, including the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Chief Terry Cosby. Joseluis Ortiz y Muniz, Water Fellow and Mayodormo (community elected official) for the Acequia Del Llano del Rio Embudo in Northern New Mexico, shared that USDA should provide more culturally-relevant technical assistance and simplify program application processes so that under-resourced and historically disinvested producers can access these resources. Joseluis also stressed the need for farmer-to-farmer learning to be a crucial part of an all-hands-on-deck approach to providing culturally-relevant technical assistance that recognizes Traditional Ecological Knowledge and incorporates language justice.
Water Fellow Amyas Maestas, an undergraduate student of Environmental Studies and generational farmer from the San Luis Valley in Colorado, is inspired to one day work for the NRCS. Like his water fellow cohort, Amyas believes that we need to shift the narrative and our mindsets about land ownership and management. He wants to educate his community, farmer to farmer, in a way that is culturally relevant and emphasizes Traditional Ecological Knowledge. His perspective is that a farmer’s role is to support the land and its ecosystems, not to own them. Amyas wants to share his knowledge with his traditionally agricultural community. He explained that they would have fewer barriers to accessing their “historical land grants and commons, if everyone is able to cooperate without barriers created by private ownership.” As the next generation of farmers and ranchers, Amyas and the whole cohort of Water Fellows would like to see more investment and trust in their expertise and leadership.
Moving to Action
As advocates we want to ensure that USDA resources and programs reflect Indigenous and immigrant populations by authorizing and funding a program to provide culturally-appropriate conservation technical assistance. “It’s well beyond time to fund culturally-appropriate technical assistance and conservation efforts. Not having done so has been a detriment to all life. Regenerative practices have long been in place by a diversity of cultures and those must be supported,” said fellow Gabriela Galindo.
Young and beginning farmers are already making extraordinary changes with limited resources. We are natural resource managers, trustees, and community builders, among so many other roles. In the face of challenges we remain steadfast in feeding our communities while fostering healthy ecosystems and being part of the solution to our climate and hunger crises.
Water Fellow Lauren Kelso, a farm manager at Growing Gardens in Boulder, Colorado, made it clear in meetings with her Members of Congress and the Senate Agriculture Committee that the “impacts of the climate crisis on U.S. agriculture are increasingly severe and demand immediate policy intervention. We must take action now before it is too late.”
Now is the time for federal policy and a farm bill that uplifts young and BIPOC farmer contributions, centers us in decision making, and supports the health of communities, land, and water. We have a big opportunity to transform the 2023 Farm Bill by investing in the capacity of the next generation to steward the future of farming by supporting peer-to-peer networks, making conservation resources more accessible to communities, and oriented towards ecological well-being.