After years of studying the challenges of agriculture in a dry climate, I finally got a glimpse of some of the farms in our own Arkansas River Valley. Three Palmer staff members and I began the day by meeting with NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service) staff to better understand their processes for conservation easements and land management plans. We also discussed how we could potentially collaborate on projects in the future. Next, we drove around four farms in the area, which Palmer is working to conserve by the end of the year. These four farms, like much of the surrounding area, grow mostly corn and alfalfa for neighboring cattle ranches. This week’s photo shows an alfalfa field before and after cutting. As green stretched on for miles is every direction, I was reminded of the surprisingly vast areas dedicated to animal and human food production across the United States. The truly incredible part of the visit was that we’ve been farming these dry areas for hundreds of years now. Snaking irrigation ditches serve as a reminder of the ambitious engineering projects to divert water miles away from the Arkansas River.
However, many of those ditches now run dry. In Crowley County, farmers have been selling their water rights since the '70s and today few irrigated farms remain in the area. Upon visiting Matt Heimerich’s farm (our Lower Arkansas Valley Conservation Director), the pattern was obvious, with many neighboring fields covered in sunbaked weeds. While some of this land is converted to ranchland, native plants have a hard time establishing after decades of intensive farming. Palmer, however, seeks to slow the selloff to maintain our agricultural communities and heritage. We’re closing in on our first irrigated farm project now, and will continue to seek farmers that wish to tie their water rights to the land, forever. While water allocation will only get trickier in the coming decades, I’m excited to see what creative solutions emerge from these new pressures.