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  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  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 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  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 NewTowncarShare News. She tweets @KristaLanglois2.

NewTowncarShare News Classifieds
  • potential fruit/hay with house, Hotchkiss, CO, Scott Ellis, 970-420-0472, [email protected]
  • The National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) seeks a director to lead a nationwide program focused on the protection of U.S. national parks from energy development...
  • Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • Crested Butte Land Trust seeks a development director to lead its fundraising efforts. Remote and unspoiled, Crested Butte is located in one of the Rockies...
  • 5-Acre Home Site, Great Views with Spectacular Sunsets From a South Facing Home Site. Excellent for Passive Solar Design. Covenants, No HOA. Keller Williams Co....
  • 3 bed/2 bath, detached strawbale building. 11.7 acres, barn, corrals, fenced. Wells, solar panels, greenhouses. Paved access. 575-535-2568.
  • WildEarth Guardians seeks two public interest-focused staff attorneys with a minimum of 5 years experience to join our legal team. Experience with at least some...
  • The New Mexico Wildlife Federation is seeking an Executive Director, a visionary leader who is passionate about public lands, dedicated to executing an innovative strategic...
  • The Aravaipa Land Steward coordinates preserve stewardship work and general operations including maintenance and general preserve management. Implements preserve management plans, which may include species...
  • seeks a talented and dynamic development professional, with a passion for protecting our natural environment, to lead our development and fundraising team.
  • The Native American Fish and Wildlife Society seeks an Executive Director in Denver, CO to serve as the Chief Administrator of the national Native American...
  • NewTowncarShare News seeks a development assistant to assist with fundraising campaigns. HCN is an award-winning, national news magazine. Strong candidates will have experience administering...
  • Energiekontor US seeks experienced local candidate, must reside in western South Dakota. Send resume and cover letter to: [email protected]
  • Seeking passionate full-time Executive to lead the oldest non-profit organization in Idaho. Must have knowledge of environmental issues, excellent organizational, verbal presentation and written skills,...
  • Carbondale based public lands advocate, Wilderness Workshop, seeks a Conservation Director to help direct and shape the future of public land conservation on the West...
  • The Bighorn River Basin Project Manager identifies and implements projects to improve streamflows, restore stream and riparian habitat, improve fish passage and rehabilitate or replace...
  • Dream of owning your own business, being your own boss, working from home ... this is the one. 928-380-6570, www.testshop.com. More info at https://bit.ly/2Kgi340.
  • 4 standard or custom lengths. Rugged protection for backpacking. Affordable pricing.
  • 5 acres, well. Abuts Carson NF; hike fish ski; deer turkey elk.
  • 9+ acre inholding. Passive solar strawbale off the grid and next to the Continental Divide Trail in ponderosa pine/doug fir forest at 7400.