OOn a cold morning, 8 km north of Fruita, Lowell King, standing at the edge of a cornfield, bends down, grabs a clod of dirt and begins to tear the ground with his fleshy fingers. King finally points to a small white speck in the dirt.
“Any time you can see things almost like this mold there, it’s fungus,” he says. “And there are all these other good things, and these intertwined roots; this is what increases your water infiltration.
King, who has farmed in the Grand Valley since 2005, exemplifies an important principle of a concept known as regenerative agriculture — a technique he says could help Colorado stretch its dwindling water supplies.
But embracing this philosophy also requires rejecting deep-rooted conventional farming methods, such as plowing fields to prepare the ground for planting.
Along the way to adopting this style of farming, King became something of a self-taught earth guru.
He has a sticker on the back of his truck that says, “I dig healthy soil.
Several years ago, King overheard a North Dakota farmer speak at a soil conference about the basic principles of regenerative agriculture, which prioritizes limiting any soil disturbance as a way to improve the health and yield of a crop.
This presentation led King to drastically change the way he grows his 300 acres of hay, small grains, non-GMO corn and cover crops.
At first, King was driven by a desire to improve his results, save on labor and fuel costs, and equipment wear and tear.
“At the end of the day, we do this for a living,” King says.
But as he began to change the way he farmed, King found there were other benefits. Most notably, in a state plagued by a painful decades-long drought, where every drop of moisture is like a rare gem, King found he was using less water.
One of the main differences between conventional farming and regenerative farming methods is that regenerative farming farmers do not till fields in preparation to plant a crop. The idea is that stirring up soil is the worst thing you can do to a field, and that maintaining soil full of organic matter, like active root systems, earthworms and fungi, helps to make grow a more productive crop.
“We have all this sunshine every day,” King says. “Anytime there’s bare soil or plants not growing, it’s basically wasted energy.”
Plus, this nutrient-rich soil holds more moisture, King says. “The water part is a huge thing.”
MORE WITH LESS
King grew up on a dairy farm in Pennsylvania. His dad used to buy hay in western Colorado and have it shipped to their dairy farm. So King already had a connection to the West Slope when he started thinking about moving.
Ironically, his relocation was prompted in part by a desire to farm where there was less moisture.
“I was like, ‘I want to live where I can actually make hay and it doesn’t rain every other day,'” King said.
No one called it regenerative agriculture where King grew up, but he did consider his father a conservation-minded farmer. King’s father planted cover crops, which are the cornerstone of the regenerative agriculture philosophy. Regenerative agricultural farmers believe that although it is not a cash crop, it is best to keep something growing in the ground at all times. Direct seeding was also becoming popular in Pennsylvania.
When King moved to the West Slope, no one did any of that. Conservation was one thing, but King’s dad also taught him that when you show up in a new place, you start farming like everyone else, that there’s probably a good reason farmers who live in a certain place for several years doing things the way they do. .
So King cultivated for 10 years using the same conventional methods as everyone else. After attending the Soil Health Conference, however, he started making some changes in 2016.
One of the things about this presentation that sticks with King today is that the North Dakota farmer got very emotional when he talked about the water.
“He said, ‘you have all the water you want and so you don’t think you need to conserve water,'” King said. “But he said ‘it’s not always going to be like this.’ And that was before we talked so much about the water situation in the Southwest.
This time has come. King uses water from the Colorado River to irrigate his fields. A network of canals brings it to his farm. King is one of approximately 40 million people in seven states who rely on water from this river in one way or another. When it comes to agriculture, farmers and ranchers use water from the Colorado River to irrigate more than 3 million acres of farmland.
But a years-long drought has impacted the snowpack in the Rocky Mountains, reducing the snowmelt that pours into the river in the spring. The Colorado River Basin, an area that includes the Colorado River and all the rivers and streams that feed into it, had its driest 22-year stretch in more than 100 years, according to the Department of the Interior.
In 2000, the basin retention system was 95% full; in the fall of 2021, reservoirs were at 39% capacity, the lowest levels on record. Meanwhile, population growth across the West has increased demand for the basin by 246,000 square miles.
King worries about this balance. “One of my concerns about water and what they’re talking about,” he said, “is that I expect to get to a point where, no matter what, big cities, domestic use, will always get the water at the end of the day.If there is a shortage, agriculture loses every time.
CHANGE IS HARD
In 2018, King sold $200,000 worth of tillage equipment and bet it all on no-till and planting cover crops in rotation. He said the results have been outstanding.
“What I can tell you is that every year I do this, the amount of water I measure goes down and we grow more crops – we can actually increase production.”
According to the Natural Resources Conservation Service, each additional 1% of organic matter increases soil water-holding capacity by 27,000 gallons per acre.
“It’s pretty crazy when you think about it,” said Bryan Reed, professor of sustainable agriculture at Colorado Mesa University. “If you have organic matter in the soil, you have these little sponges that can hold water. It keeps the moisture in your field so you don’t have to irrigate as often.
Perry Cabot, a water resources specialist at Colorado State University, said he thinks regenerative agriculture, as it involves farming that allows farmers to divert less water or plant crops that use less water, has a part to play in the larger water conversation happening across the West.
There is a catch, however, Cabot said. Currently, there is no way for a farmer to monetize this type of water saving practice. No incentive.
“Instead,” he said, “these would just be scenarios that might cause more water to be in the system for a short time, depending on junior water users.”
Indeed, without some sort of program in place, any water left in the river this way is available for other water rights holders to divert.
“That’s the dilemma with efficiency savings,” Cabot said.
A mechanism would be needed that would prevent other water rights holders downstream from using the water and then letting it flow to a designated point, a technical process known as shepherding.
King is quick to admit that he is not a politician and has no interest in getting involved in politics. But he sees a potential solution here. When King hears about proposals to save water by draining farmland – buy and dry in agricultural parlance – he wonders why can’t we just be more water efficient instead?
Rather than paying farmers to leave a field fallow, King said, why not pay them to plant cover crops that use less water.
“What really frustrates me about this is that part of the solution to the water problem is to improve soil health,” he said. “And when you take land out of production and leave it fallow and nothing grows, that’s one of the worst possible things for soil health.”
As to whether all of this could work on a larger scale, Cabot said there’s probably still a little too much tinkering around to attract the biggest farms.
“They have an ingrained business model,” Cabot said. “Most of them are very determined in their ways of operating.”
King recognizes that changing habits is one of the biggest challenges in spreading this philosophy that he is so passionate about.
“There are a lot of farmers who see what we’re doing and are interested, but they just can’t change their minds,” he said. Regardless, King feels privileged to use the Colorado River to earn a living and support his family.