Straight talk, from real farmers, in their own words.
Today, consumers have many questions about agriculture and there seems to be no shortage of so-called experts willing to talk to them about the subject. Often, in our crowded world of traditional and social media, it is only the most outrageous headlines that are noticed, but not necessarily the most accurate. So, we asked a group of farmers if they would be willing to speak to you about agriculture. Several producers took us up on our offer. Each month we will feature one of their stories in an on-going series called “Why We Care”. They will talk about everything from food safety to renewable energy. It’s straight talk, from real farmers and ranchers, in their own words. We encourage you to read and comment on these stories and to share them with others.
Our farm uses irrigation water out of the Ogallala Aquifer, the 174,000 square-mile underground reservoir that is the life blood of the High Plains region of the United States. Water from the Ogallala figures in the production of one-fifth of the corn, wheat, sorghum, cattle and cotton produced in the U.S. It’s the primary force in an economy that supports 2.3 million people in parts of eight states, and it accounts for an annual harvest worth $21 billion in Kansas.
However, everybody knows that the Ogallala is being depleted at an alarming rate. So, as impressive as the above statistics are, even more important to me is that the aquifer underpins the future of my family, our farm, and the fortunes of the 350 families that make up our hometown of Hoxie, Kan. These are the reasons I am working with neighbors to extend the life of the Ogallala Aquifer.
We started this effort in 2012 by taking advantage of a new state law that gave local water users the ability to restrict their own pumping. State officials had identified a 99 square-mile ‘high priority’ area where the water supply was in greater peril, so we began working with neighbors and Groundwater Management District officials to create a Locally Enhanced Management Area (LEMA).
There are 110 landowners with 25,000 acres of irrigation in this area, and through a series of 13 meetings — many held in our farm shop — we agreed to limit our irrigation water use to 55 inches over five years, a 20% reduction over our average. The state then made this a formal requirement, and their officials check water meters to ensure compliance.
It’s hard to get a farmer whose livelihood is based on irrigation to restrict access to his own water, so there was some reluctance. But ultimately, we knew we had no choice. Irrigation out of the Ogallala started in the 1940s, and by 1960 only 3% of the water had been used. By 2010 nearly 30% of the water was gone. Some areas were already running out of water, and studies showed that if the rate of withdrawal continued, 70% of the aquifer under western Kansas would be gone in another 50 years.
Locally, we probably wouldn’t have lasted that long. When my father first started irrigating here in the 1960s he had 200 feet of saturated thickness (depth of water above the bedrock). Now we have 60 feet and it’s going down a foot and one-half per year. They tell us that if everybody cut back by 20%, the life of the aquifer would be extended by 20 years. That’s another generation of my kids, or maybe their kids, who could enjoy the benefits that irrigation provides to this land and to this community.
The big picture
We’ve just finished the third year of this five-year commitment and are getting a handle on the economic impact. We’re growing less corn and are fine-tuning not only irrigation but also many other farming practices. A Kansas State University economist monitoring impact of the LEMA finds the area is using 22% less water, but amazingly farmers may actually be making more money. There’s no doubt that this effort has made us better farmers — we now think about the impact everything we do has on water. It’s very satisfying for me, and exciting for my family, that people in this area are taking action to preserve our way of life.
Hoxie, Kansas Farmer