Report: How Young Farmers and ranchers are essential to tackling Water scarcity in the arid West

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Here’s the executive summary.

The western United states is in the midst of a growing water crisis. extended drought, climate change, and a booming population are increasing demand for food and fresh water. in the U.s. colorado river Basin, a seven state region that produces around 85% of U.s. winter produce, demand for water is expected to significantly outpace supply by 2060. as more entities vie for this increasingly tenuous resource, agriculture is looked to as the primary sector to reduce the gap in water supply and demand.

Yet another supply-demand gap looms that is equally urgent: the shrinking number of family farmers. currently, farmers over 65 outnumber those under 35 by a ratio of six to one. nationwide, over 573 million acres of farmland are expected to change management in the next 20 years. if we fail to recruit enough new farmers, we risk furthering the consolidation of our food system, increasing permanent losses of agricultural lands, and losing a generation of water stewards.

Young farmers are critical to addressing both our dwindling water resources and producer populations. in 2015, the national Young Farmers coalition surveyed young farmers and ranchers across the arid West. Most of these farmers are young enough to have never farmed outside of drought: over 15 years ago, when the current drought began, most had yet to begin a career in agriculture. and while western farmers have always wrestled with aridity, millennial farmers can expect the entirety of their careers to be influenced by the effects of a changing climate, forcing them to develop innovative solutions for hotter, drier times.

Following the charge of many farmers before them, more young farmers are managing their operations holistically, integrating economic, ecological, and social health into a working whole. conservation is embedded in the very way they do business. the problem is our policies, programs, and funding priorities lag behind these evolving values and practices.

Over the decades, massive water projects have been developed to bring water to population centers. these continue to be proposed today: take the recent $9 billion proposal to pipe water from Wyoming’s Flaming gorge reservoir to colorado’s Front range. But too often these projects come at the expense of working lands and the communities that connect them. imagine, instead, if we invested some of those dollars in conservation instead of concrete? can we tackle our water challenges with creativity while simultaneously upholding viable and resilient agriculture?

As a region and a nation we have a choice: to continue the status quo and risk losing the land, water, and knowledge with which a new generation of producers will grow food and conserve our shared water resources; or invest in the next generation of farmers as allies in finding solutions to water scarcity. this report illustrates the urgent need—and great opportunity—to pursue the latter.

From The Durango Herald (Jessica Pace):

The survey, conducted by Fort Lewis College professors, polled 379 young farmers and ranchers in the arid West and held eight focus groups in four Colorado River Basin states. Most respondents, whose average age is 36, are in Colorado and California, are in their first 10 years of farming and did not grow up on ranches or farms.

According to the report, 82 percent of survey respondents cited water access as the top concern. Access to affordable, irrigated farmland came in fourth, at 53 percent, after drought and climate change.

Census data shows the average age of the U.S. farmer is rising, and La Plata County presents a two-fold predicament: land prices are steep, and land is dry if you can get it. The two factor heavily into the county’s dwindling agriculturists.

“For most farmers, if they’re ready to buy land, they leave La Plata County. They go to Montezuma County or get out of farming,” said Kate Greenberg, Western water program director for Young Farmers.

As a 20-something farmer, James Plate of Fields to Plate Farm can’t afford land in La Plata County. Instead, he’s taking advantage of the Old Fort Market Garden Incubator program, which allows farmers to temporarily lease land – with water rights – on the Old Fort campus in Hesperus.

“I was born and raised in Colorado and want to supply my state with local vegetables, but we are finding it difficult to get access to the proper acreage of land with water to supplement that space,” Plate said.

He and business partner Max Fields have looked at properties that range from $1.5 million to $100,000 with seasonal water rights. Cheaper land is often on the “dry side” of the county, which means farmers are confined to growing dry native crops such as corn and pinto beans.

“You can’t afford land with water,” said Tyler Hoyt, who owns a 72-acre farm in Montezuma County. “There’s plenty you can afford without.”

Hoyt, who participated in the coalition survey, purchased the farm for $330,000 11 years ago, citing the lack of affordable land in La Plata County as a reason for purchasing land in Montezuma.

“Water is definitely a premium in the West,” said The Wells Group real estate broker Thad Trujillo, who recently sold a 40-acre farm with water rights from March through July for $220,000.

Trujillo said while tracts in the southwestern part of the county may sell for under $150,000, prime parcels in North Animas Valley can go for $10,000 an acre at minimum. Apart from the valley, the most expensive (read: wet) farmland is along the river corridor and the “triangle” where the county’s three municipalities converge.

Forty-year-old Gabe French, on his third career, was fortunate to buy his Bayfield farm on County Road 509 three years ago. He grows vegetables and hay with May to October water rights from Pine River and Vallecito.

As much as 80 percent of water used by humans in the Colorado River Basin is devoted to agriculture, and much of the region’s water comes from reservoirs and is supplemented by snow-melt runoff. It’s not that the county is devoid of water – the Animas is one of the most under-appropriated rivers in the state – but getting and saving it is a different, costly story.

The analysis shows 94 percent of young farmers in the arid West practice water conservation in some capacity, but for many farmers, methods are either unknown or inaccessible. Of the 94 percent who said they conserve, just 20 percent received Natural Resources Conservation Services funding, a federal cost-share program to improve efficiency.

“It’s hard to invest money into efficient irrigation for hay,” French said.

But local farmers appear to be trying to work around their barricades with methods such as crop rotation, cover-cropping, rotational grazing and mulching to preserve the soil; drip and flood irrigation to water crops; and getting innovative in scouting usable land – like leasing property at second homes that would otherwise go unused.

Greenberg said failing to invest in the next generation of farmers will lead to land lost to fallowing, development and consolidation, which jeopardizes both water supply and food security. But until something shifts, the issues may continue to deter potential agriculturists in La Plata County.

“The water is there. The land is there,” Hoyt said. “The change has to be monetary.”

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