Young Farmers in the Western U. S. Adapt to a Water-Scarce Future

Farmer David Warren of High Wire Hops tends to the crucial beer-brewing ingredient in his fields in Paonia, Colorado.  Warren installed a drip irrigation system to irrigate the hops as efficiently as possible. Photo courtesy of David Warren/High Wire Hops.
Tending to a crucial beer-brewing ingredient in the hop yard at High Wire Hops in Paonia, Colorado. High Wire installed a drip system to irrigate the hops as efficiently as possible. Photo courtesy of David Warren/High Wire Hops

Sipping raw, whole, grass-fed milk is a bit like tasting fine wine: a familiar experience, but much more special.

That was my feeling when I drank a glass this week from De Smet Dairy in Bosque Farms, New Mexico, a small town nestled in the middle Rio Grande Valley.

With his wife Erica, Mike De Smet, a mid-thirties, third-generation farmer, owns and operates the state’s only Grade A dairy farm and bottling facility for raw milk.

After locals had come by to stock up – at $10 a gallon, it’s not cheap – De Smet would load up his truck and transport that day’s bottled production up to Albuquerque, about 20 miles (32 kilometers) north.  His milk sells out every week.

De Smet Dairy is one of six western farm operations profiled in a new report just released by the National Young Farmers Coalition (NYFC) that showcases how these young farmers are adapting to drought and water stress, and raising productivity on their lands.

The six farmers live in either the Colorado or Rio Grande river basins, the two largest river systems of the Southwest, but each suffers from excessive diversions, groundwater depletion and long-term droughts.

The Colorado Basin alone irrigates some 15% of US produce overall and 80% of winter vegetables.  So we all, to some degree, “eat” the Colorado – and thus have a stake in how well farmers can adapt to the drought-prone, water-stressed world now upon us.

Though the farmers profiled differ in their approaches to building resilience on their land and in their operations, and they represent a small, non-random sample, a few important themes jump out.

First, restoring health to soils is key.  Heavily compacted, nutrient poor, exposed soils do not store water well.  So enhancing the capacity of soils to hold moisture is crucial for every western farmer interested in weathering dry spells and reduced water allocations.

For Brendon Rockey, a 36-year-old farmer in southern Colorado’s San Luis Valley, a groundwater-dependent region in the headwaters of the Rio Grande, the solution came in the form of an age-old practice: planting “green manure” cover crops.  Instead of rotating in barley after potatoes, Rockey eliminated the barley in favor of a strategic mix of ten different cover crops that kept the soil protected from wind and evaporation losses, fixed nitrogen and thus naturally fertilized the soil, and produced flowers that brought predatory insects that kept the non-beneficial bugs at bay.

The cover crops not only reduced Rockey’s groundwater use (and pumping costs), they helped improve the quality of his potato harvest and lowered fertilizer and pesticide costs.

“Farmers need to become biologists again,” Rockey told the NYFC.

Second, farmers just starting out often do not have the capital to purchase water-saving equipment or implement conservation methods, so support for irrigation technology upgrades can be a big help.

For Jason Walker, a 31-year-old grain farmer north of Tucson, Arizona, assistance from the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) helped him upgrade irrigation ditches and precision-level a portion of his fields.  The field-leveling alone was estimated to improve water efficiency by 20-30 percent – a gain in water productivity that could make a big difference as water allocations from the Colorado River become less secure for Arizona farmers.

An NRCS grant also helped High Wire Hops, located on the west slope of the Rockies in Paonia, Colorado, to purchase and install an efficient drip system to irrigate its hops, a crop in high demand by regional breweries.  For its water supply, High Wire draws from the North Fork of the Gunnison River, a tributary to the Colorado River.  The drip system helps meet the hops’ water needs with minimal withdrawals from the river.

Third, a willingness to buck convention, try new approaches, and adapt as they go seems to be an ingredient of success.

Mike De Smet, who owns and operates New Mexico’s only Grade A, raw-milk dairy, after completing that day’s bottling. Photo by Sandra Postel.
Mike De Smet, who owns and operates New Mexico’s only Grade A, raw-milk dairy, after completing that day’s bottling. Photo by Sandra Postel.

Confronting drought and tightening water allocations in the Rio Grande Valley, Mike DeSmet, the raw-milk dairy farmer, has laser-leveled his fields and moved to minimum- or no-till planting to conserve the moisture in his soil.

During my visit to DeSmet’s farm this week, I saw that he’s also trying something outside the norm: planting a small section of his acreage in kochia rather than grass.  A drought-resistent, high-protein forage crop, kochia has a feed-value slightly lower than alfalfa, (hence its nickname, the “poor-man’s alfalfa”), but better palatability than many grasses.

Kochia’s ability to thrive on six inches of annual rainfall could make it a valued forage crop in the dry Southwest.  In DeSmet’s view, it’s worth a try to make scarce water stretch further as he works to grow his dairy-cow herd to 100 head over the next five years.

With agriculture consuming the lion’s share of the West’s water, innovative ways to improve farm productivity while reducing water use will be key to solving the region’s growing water challenges.

As Kate Greenberg, the NYFC’s Durango, Colorado-based Western Organizer, and co-author of the report, put it, “Irrigated agriculture is central to our communities in the Southwest. We need to keep it productive, vibrant and viable….[T]hese farmers are helping lead the way.”

Sandra Postel is director of the Global Water Policy Project, Freshwater Fellow of the National Geographic Society, and author of several books and numerous articles on global water issues.  She is co-creator of Change the Course, the national freshwater conservation and restoration campaign being piloted in the Colorado River Basin.



Meet the Author
Sandra Postel is director of the Global Water Policy Project and author of Replenish: The Virtuous Cycle of Water and Prosperity. From 2009-2015, she served as Freshwater Fellow of the National Geographic Society. Sandra is also co-creator of Change the Course, the national water stewardship initiative awarded the 2017 US Water Prize for restoring billions of gallons of water to depleted rivers and wetlands. The recipient of several honorary degrees, she works to bridge science, policy, and practice to promote innovative ways of securing water to meet both human and ecosystem needs.