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Water + Young Farmers in the West

Photo by Kacey Kropp c/o National Young Farmers Coalition

It’s the start of growing season here in the West. As I prep my own planting beds and devise ways to remind myself to water my tomatoes in what’s shaping up to be a season of wild weather, I’m thinking about the farmers all across the West that are planting and planning their irrigation schedules for this year’s crops. You know, those farmers who use 75% of the West’s water? They are, in many places, our friends and neighbors and must be our collaborators in finding solutions as well.

NYFC_Conservation_Generatiion_coverSo it comes as no surprise to me that National Young Farmers Coalition’s (NYFC) recent report, Conservation Generation: How Young Farmers and Ranchers are Essential to Tackling Water Scarcity in the Arid West, found that water, drought, and climate change are the top agricultural concerns for young farmers in the West. In general, young people better understand the connection between climate change, drought, and water scarcity, and are more willing to work across silos than many of their older counterparts. And NYFC’s report shows that young farmers are no exception.

NYFC talked to young farmers to understand how they think about farming in our often arid Western landscapes. They found that young farmers prioritize water conservation – in fact, the majority of young farmers are already conserving. But there are many challenges they face: high costs of acquiring irrigated farmland and irrigation innovation and perceptions of the “use it or lose it” water laws that create disincentives for conservation. The report recommends ways to support young farmers with everything from increasing participation in conservation cost-share programs to clarifying the principles of farmer’s water rights under Prior Appropriations.

But how can downstream water providers and their consumers help?

These farms are often the link between the forested headwaters and water supply intake. Utilities across the West, like Eugene Water & Electric Board (EWEB) know that healthy farm practices mean less treatment cost to them downstream and keeping land in agricultural production means less runoff from development. That’s why EWEB is working with farmers to use fewer pesticides and fertilizers and helping the next generation of farmers learn best practices at their demonstration farm. They are also helping farmers find markets for their crops to help economics on the farm so that agricultural land is not sold off for development. They’re paying landowners along the river to maintain healthy riparian forests that buffer human and agricultural activities from drinking water sources – a win-win for all parties involved.

And it’s not just Eugene. We’re seeing collaboration among water resource managers and agricultural interests across the West. The farming community is a critical component to the success of the Rio Grande Water Fund (RGWF) in New Mexico. The RGWF is building partnerships between public and private stakeholders in the Rio Grande Basin to generate sustainable funding for large-scale forest and watershed restoration treatments. These treatments include thinning overgrown forests, restoring streams and rehabilitating areas that flood after wildfires.

The RGWF’s Rio Grande Wildfire and Water Source Protection Collaborative Charter has more than 30 signatories, including some key agricultural interests. Signatories – even those who are not contributing money to the fund – have a seat at the table to discuss and identify priority projects in the approximately 600,000 acres of forest that are targeted for treatment.

We know that with water, it’s all connected, from ground water and surface water to forest, farms, and faucets. Supporting the West’s farmers to irrigate efficiently and keep land in production helps protect source water, conserve open space and wildlife habitat, and put healthful food on tables across the country. What are some of the ways your organization can work with local irrigators to address water scarcity and security in your community?

Kristiana Teige Witherill

Kristiana Teige Witherill
May 19, 2016

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