Farmer perspectives must be heard in water conversations

February 1, 2023

Jocelyn Anderson knows every drop of water counts. Her family grows almonds and walnuts on their farm about 1 ½ hours north of Sacramento, California, where tension over water use runs high amid drought and competing needs.

Concern over the resource drives Anderson’s family to constantly adapt to better manage their water. They monitor moisture in the soil using probes at 3, 6, 9 and 12 feet, and in the trees themselves by testing leaves for water stress. Then they set irrigation to release just the right amount of water when and where it’s needed, targeted to the row.

She’s fortunate, she says, in that her family can draw water from their own wells to supply their orchards. Neighboring rice farmers who rely on the public irrigation districts did not plant their crops in 2022 when water was not allocated to them.

More than 2,000 miles east, in northeastern Arkansas, where Brad Doyle grows rice, soybeans and wheat, the concern is not so much lack of water. It’s unpredictability. He has used a variety of technologies to help him watch the weather and move water onto—or off of—his fields as needed, reducing and recycling water as much as possible.

Heavier spring rains in Doyle’s area have created shorter windows in which planting can be completed. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projects continued change in precipitation amounts and timing that will affect all agricultural regions. Farmers will face combinations of heavy precipitation and drought, in many cases, in one year, which will affect how they grow food—and, ultimately, how society functions.

“Everybody is concerned about this,” says John Farner, chief sustainability officer of Netafim, a private industry partner specializing in precision irrigation. “Everyone is concerned with making sure we have enough food available for the future with as little environmental impact as possible.”

With water becoming the face of climate change, Anderson, Doyle and Farner brought their agricultural perspectives on wise water usage to global audiences during an event co-hosted by Solutions from the Land, Netafim and the U.S. Soybean Export Council at the United Nations Climate Convention (COP27) on Nov. 14, 2022, in Egypt.

As Farner noted during the COP27 event, agriculture is severely underrepresented in global conversations on water sustainability goals. These conversations often lead to policies and regulations affecting our global food production without taking into account the fact that farmers can often provide positive environmental impact, leading to healthier watersheds around the world.

Solutions from the Land strongly agrees with Farner that farmers and agriculture partners must be at the table during water conversations. Farmers and agriculture groups are already engaging in conversations and making progress toward better managing water for food, fiber and fuel production, as well as delivering more, cleaner water to society for sanitation and health needs. Solutions come from building soil health, crop breeding and genetics, and precision technologies.

To champion farmer perspectives and innovations related to water, SfL sought and successful obtained accreditation to participate in the United Nations Water Conference, March 22-24 in New York. The outcome of the conference will be a summary of the proceedings and new commitments, pledges and actions by international governments and all stakeholders toward achieving the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6: Clean Water and Sanitation and other water-related goals and targets, compiled in the Water Action Agenda. 

SfL will send a delegation of farmers, ranchers and forest landowners to intervene with agricultural perspectives during events and in conversations with international leaders. SfL is also working with other organizations to propose an official side event that would share insights and experiences from around the world on the potential for land-based water management, including precision irrigation and conservation drainage. There will be no one-size-fits solutions to water challenges, but farmers are leaders in adapting their businesses to changing environments. SfL hopes their spirit of collaboration and innovation will inspire global leaders to take note of the agriculture community’s value and work with, not against, farmers to find ways forward.

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