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Farmers using regenerative practices to conserve water and adapt to climate change

Posted at 1:44 PM, May 26, 2022

With the continuous threat of drought in the western U.S., more farmers are picking up sustainable practices to keep their soil and their crops alive.

Todd Olander’s family has owned a patch of farmland for generations. They grow barley for beer and call their operation Root Shoot Malting.

“Farming is a gamble every year," Olander said. "So we are lucky in this area in the front range that we actually have irrigation water and usually that comes from the snowpack.”

As the years pass, Olander says access to irrigation water has declined. He says this year is looking bleak as the western U.S. faces severe drought.

“Usually they'll issue about eight-acre feet per share," Olander said. "And this year we're looking at like one and a half or two-acre feet. So that's a pretty major decrease. I guess it's only a quarter of the water that we normally get.”

University of Oklahoma Economics professor Jonathan McFadden studies how farmers can adapt to climate change.

“If you think about places like western Texas, western Oklahoma and western Kansas that are situated above the Ogallala Aquifer and into western Nebraska as well, you know, many parts of that we have dwindling recharge rates," McFadden said. "So farmers are using more of the aquifer water than essentially the natural rainfall can replenish.”

Olander has been implementing regenerative farming practices to conserve water. He says he’s no longer tilling.

“So you're just leaving the residue from the previous crop, you know, on the surface of the soil," McFadden said. "And so that residue is great because it sort of forms a protective barrier against the sun and it can sort of help lock in soil moisture.”

He’s planting cover crops like radishes and peas in the off-season starting in August.

“The peas will actually fix nitrogen," Olander said. "So during their growing cycle, they'll actually put nitrogen into the soil and can capture it from the from the air.”

This year he’s adding a probiotic to his soil from Locus Agricultural Solutions. The company aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and maximize crop yields. Travis Kraft works with farmers in the central region of the U.S.

“We are trying to bring life back to soil that has been devoid over time, through tillage or overfertilization or the application of herbicides, pesticides, fungicides, insecticides, whatever you could think of,” Kraft said.

The company is trying to encourage farmers to uptake this green solution by rewarding them through carbon credit payments. After farmers purchase the soil probiotics, they receive 75% of their carbon credit payments upfront, which can be used to purchase more soil probiotics.  

“We understand that our technology can enhance the opportunity to sequester additional credits each year, and we can go out and pre-sell those credits and then pay the growers upfront,” Kraft said.

Olander says he is doing all he can think of mitigate the negative impacts of drought.

“At this point, we haven't really identified any type of silver bullet,” McFadden said.

To adapt to climate change, McFadden says farmers will have to be adventurous trying different combinations of regenerative practices to find what’s best for them.

“We've really pivoted like almost 100% in the last three years," Olander said. "So, I mean, that's a pretty big change and a pretty big risk. But I think, like, with the time is now we need to start making some changes.”