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Report: Young Western Farmers Conserve Water Despite Legal Barriers and Lack of Incentives

Report: Young Western Farmers Conserve Water Despite Legal Barriers and Lack of Incentives

March 17, 2016 |

Courtesy National Young Farmers Coalition

Courtesy National Young Farmers Coalition

A new report by the National Young Farmers Coalition (NYFC) titled Conservation Generation: How Young Farmers and Ranchers Are Essential to Tackling Water Scarcity in the Arid West finds that young farmers in the west care deeply about water conservation and often conserve despite incentives to the contrary.

The country faces a dearth of young farmers, with six times as many farmers over the age of 65 as those under 35.  The report states that “If we fail to recruit enough new farmers, we risk furthering consolidation of our food system, increasing permanent losses of agricultural lands, and losing a generation of water stewards.”

In turn, young farmers face high land and water prices.

“Irrigated farmland in the west is entirely unaffordable in most areas, especially in areas that are reasonably close to a good market,” says NYFC Western Organizer Kate Greenberg. “Essentially the price of water drives the price of land in the west.”

The report finds that federal cost-share programs are not reaching young farmers and confusion around the application of the “use it or lose it” principle of Western water law discourages conservation.

NYFC conducted focus groups and an online survey, reaching 379 western farmers and ranchers. Most farmers, the report notes, “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.” The average respondent age was 36, while the average American farmer is 58 years old.

According to the report. young farmers face different challenges than older farmers regarding land and water access an, have a different mindset toward water conservation.

Farmers surveyed for the report rated water availability and access, climate change and drought as their top three concerns. To conserve water, farmers use soil health practices including cover cropping, crop rotation, no-till and rotational grazing as well as pressure irrigation and irrigation scheduling. The primary motivations for conservation identified were a sense of stewardship and a desire to increase productivity. According to one focus group participant, “Being a steward of the land is a top priority.”

Of the young farmers who engage in conservation practices, about a quarter utilize federal cost-share programs like those available from the National Resource Conservation Service. The rest were either unaware of or unable to easily access the programs, which help fund efficiency improvements. 

Farmers are divided on the question of whether “use it or lose it” doctrine—the principle that unused water rights are subject to abandonment or forfeiture—discourages water conservation. Many were unsure whether “use it or lose it” applied in their region.

The report calls for more education for young farmers to resolve these issues.

“It’s critical that farmers have at least a baseline knowledge of Western water law and policy as it pertains to them and their operation,” says Greenberg.

In the meantime, NYFC is working with the USDA to lower administrative barriers for young farmers applying to cost-share programs. 

“We as a community need to incentivize good use of water both on and off the farm,” says Greenberg, so that at the very least, farmers do not have to worry that conservation will cost them their water rights.

The report also emphasizes the need for collaboration to address challenges young farmers face.

“Western water has been built on a foundation of fighting. It’s always been a scarce resource,” says Greenberg. “We’re all connected by water and right now we have a choice of how we want to move forward. Do we want to move forward contentiously… or put in a little more blood and sweat and find the places where we share the same values and visions for the future?”

Greenberg hopes that this report will inspire farmers, allies and lawmakers to consider how they can conserve water in times of scarcity while being good stewards of the land and continuing to produce food for communities.

“Reducing the barriers to young farmer success is essential to meeting these goals,”  she says. 

Greenberg is in the process of hiring a full-time Southwest policy analyst to help NYFC develop a policy platform to identify tangible steps the organization can take to effect change.

“We envision a pathway opening up for this generation to make successful careers in agriculture while innovating and conserving water in uncertain times.”

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