Dispatch from a young farmers confab

How better dirt can conserve water, save farming and help feed the West.

 

“If you’re building soil, you’re a farmer. If you’re not, you’re a miner.”

That’s what one audience member told a panel of five farmers this week at a conference of the National Young Farmers Coalition in Durango, Colorado. Though the three-day event was mostly a chance for Western farmers to discuss the future of agriculture and learn about conserving water in the face of ongoing drought, the message came down to one thing: It’s the soil, stupid. 

For the last half-century, the trend in U.S. agriculture has been toward bigger farms, more advanced machinery and higher yields. While the argument can be made that such advances have helped feed our growing population, they’ve also degraded the soil. “We can’t keep farming the way we’ve been farming,” says Brendon Rockey, a potato farmer from Center, Colorado. “We just don’t have the resources to maintain it.”

The biggest resource that’s lacking is also the most essential: water. With southwestern cities like Phoenix and Los Angeles getting ever larger, the over-stressed Colorado River may become even more taxed. And while it’s not entirely fair for upstream farmers to cut back so that someone in L.A. can keep watering their lawn, agriculture is by far the biggest draw on western watersheds, and many farmers realize that the West’s ability to survive persistent drought may depend on their ability to conserve water.

Young farmers on a visit to the James Ranch in Durango, Colorado, earlier this week.
Kate Greenberg, National Young Farmers Coalition

One way to do that is by taking care of the soil. A one percent increase in organic material over an acre can save up to 27,000 gallons of water — and pesticides, herbicides and other extensions of industrial ag kill the beneficial microbes that build organic material. Hence, GMO monocultures typically use more water than farms that employ techniques like cover cropping, crop rotation and no-till practices. That doesn’t mean a rejection of technology — even small farms today are often incredibly high-tech — but it could represent a fundamental shift. There’s “a growing demographic of young, beginning farmers — farmers by choice, not by heritage — who have committed themselves to small-scale agriculture,” writes Lauren Markham in the November issue of Orion magazine. “Often with strong educational backgrounds and urban or suburban upbringings, these young people have chosen their vocation over many other options available to them, and … they’ve done it largely out of a deep environmental ethic.”

Nonetheless, it’s not just small, organic farms building better soil. Large farms — arguably necessary for the economy of scale they provide — can be good stewards, too, through many of the same methods. “There’s room for both,” says farmer Mike Nolan of Mountain Roots Produce in Mancos, Colorado. “Ten thousand acres of GMO corn is unsustainable, but so is one acre with 40 different kinds of veggies dug with a hand tool”— meaning, no one’s going to stay in business or feed many people with the latter.  

Plus, young farmers aren’t alone in doing things differently. George Whitten, a third-generation, 61-year rancher from Colorado’s San Luis Valley, was on hand this week to school young farmers on how combining pre-industrial practices with modern technology can help them survive drought. His own story is a case study: In 2005, after years of drought, many of his farmer-neighbors began planting cover crops by necessity, to conserve moisture and prevent their dry dirt from blowing away. At the same time, the public rangeland where Whitten had been grazing his cattle became almost too barren to support them. So Whitten began asking farmers if he could graze his cows on their cover-cropped fields.

Farmers who agree are paid for every pound of beef the animals gain on their land, plus they reap the benefits of soil improved by free nitrogen from the cow manure. Whitten, for his part, saves the expense of making hay, gets to know his neighbors, and feels he’s contributing to the overall ecologic health of the valley. A decade ago, “it was impossible,” he says, to get farmers on board with his crazy plan. But “the drought has forced us to do things we never imagined.” And that, he says, gives him hope.

Krista Langlois is an editorial fellow at High Country News. She tweets @KristaLanglois2.