By Steven Emmen, NFU Intern
Blake Osborn is a water resources specialist at Colorado State University (CSU) Extension in Pueblo, CO. On Tuesday, June 20, we had the opportunity to discuss how beginning farmers can conserve water.
Q: For a beginning farmer, what are the first steps to ensure you are conserving water?
A: In terms of conserving water, I would say one of the first steps – if you can and have the ability to do – is a simple water budget. Find out how much water you have access to – this should be very clear cut – and then also look at the crops you are growing and see how much water they are expected to use in a year. A step that is imbedded in that is looking up local climate data and how much evaporative demand is placed on plants, or how much water a plant is going to need depending on the dryness of the air. Once you have completed that, try to evaluate your soils. Knowing what your soils type is very important because you don’t want to put on too much water – this will just cause water to be drained past the root zone and be put to waste. You also don’t want to have such a hard clay soil that water doesn’t infiltrate and then evaporates before reaching the roots. So look at your soils once you know what kind of crops you are growing. And then if that all checks out, move on to checking out your actual irrigation system. And obviously the more efficient systems are the drip systems; however, that can be capital intensive, and new farmers might not have the ability to obtain that. So make sure to look at the crops you are growing, the climate, and then the soils.
Q: What is the most common mistake farmers make when it comes to water? Water conservation?
A: Young farmers tend to start off on a smaller plot of land and tend to grow a more high-value crop like vegetables. Depending on what you grow, that could require more water. So it is finding a balance where you have a good profitable crop but one that also is not taking too much water. That is a real challenge, because if you are working so many acres, you have to make so much profit per acre. So people tend to go towards high revenue fruit or vegetable crops that can be more water intensive than other crops. Also know the source of your water and what you have to work with. For young farmers, especially those who move to Colorado, the concept of having a water right with a specific amount of water and where they are on the priority list can be very confusing to them. But it could also drive the need for water conservation depending on how senior your right is.
Q: We talk about water quantity in the West so much, but the issue of quality is usually not addressed. What are some things that beginning farmers can do to insure clean water makes its way down stream to their neighbor?
A: You caught me in the middle of a project right now – we are looking at water quality at a watershed-scale, and we’re trying to write a plan to improve the water quality in a part of Colorado that traditionally has poor water quality. In the mountains, it is assumed that we have crystal clear water. That can be true in some places, but there is a lot of mining and agriculture going on, and what looks like crystal clear water might be high in nitrates and heavy metals. One thing we advocate for is farmers testing water going into their farm. Most farms are not at the top of the mountain and will have water coming to them that is going through another system, like mining or cities, so test the water before it goes on your farm. You can go to a CSU extension or other places for very cheap or even free. Also, the more efficient you can be in your irrigation system, the cleaner the water you will send downstream. If you are using flood irrigation, that will often picks up salts or other things in the soils and will contaminate to the quality of water going downstream.
Q: How much does climate affect beginning farmers and their water?
A: I would say that it is something that all farmers should be looking at. Beginning farmers are looking 20-50 years down the road while older farmers aren’t looking that far. I think it is a big topic, and what it comes down to is risk management. And I think it is really smart to be looking at this. I work with a lot of water providers, like the city of Colorado Springs, and they are looking 30-50 years out and are including climate change into their risk assessment plan. So it is very important for farmers to be looking at the natural hydrology and variability as well. The last few years, we have been getting a pretty good amount of water because it is has been an El Niño year, but records show that will not last. So knowing the climate and what it has been like and where it is headed with hydrology and snowpack. Also look into farming practices that allow for adaptations when changes come. For instance, when a drought comes, have a plan ahead of time for what you will do. It will make that farm more resilient but also help with mitigation.
Water Resources for Farmers
Conservation Generation – Publication from National Young Farmers Coalition.
CoAgMet – Weather station network giving farmers access to climate data, including ET reports.
Colorado Building Farmers Program – Series of workshops for young and beginning farmers.
Guidestone Colorado – Gives support to young, mostly urban or suburban farmers.