Farmers collaborate to conserve their water resources
Water is a constant worry for farmers whose livelihoods depend on its availability. Even so, one group of farmers in northwest Kansas is voluntarily reducing the amount of water they pull from the Ogallala Aquifer to irrigate the corn, grain sorghum, soybeans and wheat grown in the arid region.
The farmers, whose land covers nearly 99 square miles and 25,000 acres, have agreed to pump 20% less water from the aquifer during the course of five years, explains Mitchell Baalman, a third-generation farmer from Hoxie, Kan. Baalman is one of the leaders of the group, which represents the state’s first Local Enhanced Management Area (LEMA) for water conservation. This year is the second year the agreement has been in place.
"Our aquifer is declining a foot-and-a-half per year," notes Baalman, whose farm, FDK Partnership, encompasses 12,000 crop acres. "There are too many wells pulling water out of there—that’s what it comes down to."
Approximately 195 wells are in the LEMA. On average, the wells pull 31,000 acre-feet of water per year from the shallow Ogallala. The aquifer lies beneath the Great Plains in an area that covers approximately 174,000 square miles and portions of eight states, including Kansas.
A four-year study conducted by researchers at Kansas State University reveals the serious threat the aquifer faces. At the current rate of water use, the study estimates it will be 70% depleted by 2060.
Baalman and the other farmers participating in the LEMA hope their reduced use of water will slow the aquifer’s decline rate and extend local groundwater supplies. State officials check the well pumps to make sure farmers are compliant.
"We’ve had to start thinking different about how we use water, but it’s been a good thing," Baalman says.
In 2013, he says his average well pumped only 12" of water on his farm. "We had 215-bu. corn, but we had to have some rain in August to make that happen," he acknowledges. "We are still at the mercy of Mother Nature."
Agronomic technology is supporting Baalman’s efforts to reduce water consumption and still produce crop yields that sustain his family operation.
"Flex corn hybrids, strip tillage, no-till, using irrigation standards and mapping are all things farmers are using to make this work," he says.
Baalman says not everyone in his area supports the LEMA. Plus, he is well aware that despite the farmers’ agreement, the aquifer’s long-term viability is still bleak. "Twenty percent won’t be enough of a reduction," he says, "but we had to start somewhere."
Together for a cause. Sometimes, a farmer’s desire to see his operation survive and thrive contributes to unlikely partnerships. That was the case for the management team at Hillside Ranch based in Blaine County, Idaho. The ranch collaborates with MillerCoors and The Nature Conservancy to preserve their water supply.
"Some people ask me, ‘How can you work together?’ and I tell them, ‘Quite well, actually,’ " says Gary Beck, farm manager.
Beck says while he doesn’t "always agree" with the environmental stands the ranch’s partners sometimes take, there have been solid benefits from working with them.
From a local perspective, Beck notes that the conservation measures the ranch has employed help improve its soil conservation and keep the water healthy in nearby Silver Creek.
From a business perspective, he adds, the executives with MillerCoors and The Nature Conservancy have helped the ranch management team understand and use the farm data they have collected through the years.
"The hardest part about any partnership is keeping the lines of communication open," Beck says.
Baalman agrees. He says good ongoing discussions among farmers are necessary to their success.
"In western Kansas, we’re pretty rural, and we realized if we wanted our communities to survive so our children could have a future here, we would have to change," he says. "It took communication to get us here."
Conservation, Front and Center
June 22 to 25, 2014 in Winnipeg, Manitoba
Conservation-minded individuals from around the world will convene in Canada this summer to promote the practical application of conservation practices. The interactive format is designed to showcase sustainable on-farm innovations, create research opportunities and help policymakers understand the importance of swift adoption of conservation practices.
Platinum sponsors for the event: Dow AgroSciences, Howard Buffett Foundation, Monsanto Company, The Mosaic Company and Seed Hawk. Gold sponsors: Agrium and FAO. Silver sponsors: Bayer CropScience, CropLife Canada, Farm Credit Canada and Syngenta. Bronze sponsors: SaskCanola, Canadian Fertilizer Institute, The Nature Conservancy, Ducks Unlimited and the Coalition on Agricultural Greenhouse Gases. The Ontario Soil & Crop Improvement Association also contributed.
For additional details and to register, visit www.wcca6.org