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Farmers to Table: Drought Resilience + Setting the Stakeholder Table – An Interview with Kate Greenberg

KateRegardless of where farmers are on the watershed chain, they are essential to the stewardship of that watershed… If you’re talking about upstream managers, if you’re talking about end users, farmers might fall anywhere in the middle, but everybody in there is going to eat, everybody in there is going to drink.

Our interview with Kate Greenberg, Western Organizer for the National Young Farmers Coalition, looks at how the agricultural community is facing the drought and the critical need to engage with farmers to build the common ground that serves as a foundation for watershed investment.


What action are farmers taking to conserve water during the drought?

Farmers have been voluntarily conserving water for decades, without recognition. And a lot of these practices come in two forms: they come in form of efficiency improvements and they come in the form of on-farm resource management, primarily through soil health. So farmers and ranchers alike are both improving their irrigation systems, going from, say, flood to overhead sprinkler or even drip-irrigation on the larger scale. On a smaller scale, many farmers have already been using drip-irrigation since the get go.

Essentially, our perspective is that there is no one-size-fits-all for every operation. In some places flood is the only, at least currently, economically viable irrigation practice for an individual farm. Flood irrigation also provides wildlife habitat and groundwater recharge, so it’s not cut and dry. But, improving the irrigation system does have the potential to save more water. It’s not necessary that that happens, but when you improve your efficiency, you essentially increase your flexibility. And so farmers have been doing that for a long time to increase their productivity, and then now in response to drought are also looking at irrigation technology upgrades, seeing where they can invest in systems that do have the potential to save water.

On the soil side, soil health is key to water conservation on farms. The healthier your soil, the more water it can retain, and the more flexibility you have around irrigation. If a farmer upgrades from flood to drip-irrigation, sure his efficiency will improve, but that doesn’t mean that the soil will efficiently deliver the water to the crop. So farmers everywhere, and ranchers too, are looking to soil health as a drought resilience tool that also promotes conservation. I work with a number of farmers who have significantly reduced their irrigation, because they have implemented soil health practices. This is something that we promote strongly. We really don’t feel like this is getting enough limelight in policy discussions. Everyone is focused on technological improvements.

Your recent report highlighted some great stories of family farms that are taking these kinds of actions. How do those actions get scaled up across agriculture in the West?

I think it’s kind of “chicken or the egg.” They have to come at the same time from all these angles. Farmers talking with other farmers and seeing what works is number one. And that’s something that we do a lot of, bringing farmers together on farm tours, potlucks, or workshops, to share with one another what’s working, what’s not, how to beat the drought, how to enhance productivity, how to save water. So the more voices like those in the case studies that we can elevate, the more producers see that that’s working, and they are more liable to take a risk and make a change.

I think there is also a role that our agencies and universities have to play as well. Particularly those service providers that have a direct relationship with producers like extension offices and the Natural Resources Conservation Service. In some regions they are really strong innovators and supporters of innovation and in others they are not. I think we need to do more with funding studies to look at soil health, water conservation, and efficiencies that support the farmer through drought and build resilience. And then we really need to work with those agencies and service providers to say, “Hey, farmers are already ahead of the game in some regards and universities are trying to catch up.” I think typically it’s been the reverse. Anecdotally, I have heard that farmers are saying, “I’m a couple of years ahead of my extension office. They are not servicing me.” I think there is a great need, and it’s tough when you have a big bureaucracy, funded through several programs. But there’s still room for improving the creativity and innovation that our service providers bring to producers and vice versa.

Our understanding about funding for agricultural research is that it often comes from the agricultural chemical industry, which can place limits on research topics. Where would the funding come from for the type of work that you’re describing?

That’s true. The universities are sometimes bound by their funders. The NRCS actually has a really extensive soil health program. They’ve been leaders in promoting soil health as a tool for both conservation and resilience. Their funding is through the Farm Bill, so that’s a matter of Farm Bill appropriations, essentially.

And then there are also more local efforts. For instance, here in southwest Colorado, the conservation district and a couple of other entities, along with the NRCS, have hired on a specialist focusing on soil and water conservation in Colorado. A mix of federal, state, and local conservation district dollars funds that work. There is definitely an opportunity to expand this type of diversified funding.

Here at Carpe Diem West, we work to connect upstream land managers to downstream water users to promote investment in watershed protection and restoration, with the hope of increasing water security. And farmers can be on both sides of that table. From your perspective, what side of that land owner-water user nexus would be the best place to engage with farmers?

Well, that’s a tough question. Regardless of where farmers are on the watershed chain, they are essential to the stewardship of that watershed. It’s my hope that farmers and ranchers are a part of the conversation at all levels of the watershed. So if you’re talking about upstream managers, if you’re talking about end users, farmers might fall anywhere in the middle, but everybody in there is going to eat, everybody in there is going to drink. And I think there is a dual responsibility for farmers to engage as stewards in watersheds health in such a way that promotes the success of their operation. But there is also a responsibility for consumers, or utilities, or whoever the end user is, to recognize agriculture and farmers and ranchers as allies in watershed stewardship. Right now there is a lot of antagonism, and honestly not every farmer is the best possible steward. But farmers are essentially our first line – independent, on the ground, first line of stewardship. I think it’s critical that utilities and end consumers recognize that.

Kate organizes young farmers and ranchers across the western U.S. for the National Young Farmers Coalition. Before joining NYFC she worked on CSA vegetable farms and wineries, volunteered on ranches, and managed western field programs and native tree greenhouses. She graduated from Whitman College in 2009. Kate lives and farms in Durango, CO and sits on the Board of Directors of the Quivira Coalition.

Photo Credit: Eddie J. Rodriquez / Shutterstock.com

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