Water challenges: Farmers need to grow more food with fewer resources

Farmer Roric Paulman talks with students about the challenges facing the aquifer, about 90 feet beneath their feet. (Planet Forward staff)

In the face of a changing climate, the agriculture industry is increasingly figuring out how to produce more and use less.

At its core, producing row crops will always be the same process: plant it, grow it, harvest it.

Water impacts every stage of this cycle.

If there’s too much water when the seeds are planted, the young plant’s roots can’t get oxygen and die. If there’s not enough, they won’t germinate. A heavy storm after applying nitrogen fertilizer can wash the nutrients into the watershed, making it unavailable to the plant and polluting the water supply. Too little rain and the plants can’t take up the nutrients that keep photosynthesis going. Another big rain at harvest can make a field too wet for a producer to get equipment in and crops out of a field.

For decades, producers have used technology to control the risk of water.

In wet states like Ohio, Iowa, and Illinois, they use drainage ditches and systems of underground pipes to channel water out of fields and prevent damage from standing water.

In the Plains states, producers depend on irrigation, pulling water from below the ground to compensate for the lack of rainfall. The most popular irrigation system, rotating center-pivots, create the circles of green that dot the landscape in flyover country every summertime.

Western Nebraska sits on the heart of the Ogallala Aquifer, a vast stretch of water beneath the surface. When rain falls, it recharges the aquifer, but in the last 60 years, producers have been pulling water faster than the aquifer can replace it. According to a recent report from The Denver Post, the aquifer shrank twice as fast over the past six years compared with the previous 60. (Watch this video about the Ogallala Aquifer to learn more.)

So far, 358 miles of surface rivers and streams in the high plains of Colorado, Kansas, and Nebraska have dried up as a result, according to a study published last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Researchers estimate another 177 miles will be gone by 2060 if water is withdrawn at the current rate.

What’s more, scientists have found impacts of a changing climate will reduce the availability of water in Nebraska. A University of Nebraska-Lincoln report projected the state will have more frequent and severe drought and more days topping 100 degrees. They expect soil moisture to decline by 5 to 10 percent. And less snowpack in the Rocky Mountains means less water will flow downstream into Nebraska.

Less water overall makes each step of the “plant it, grow it, and harvest it” cycle more difficult. Producing row crops on the Plains requires individual farms to do more with a smaller amount.

Like most Nebraska farmers, Roric Paulman irrigates with water pulled from the Ogallala.

Roric Paulman
Farmer Roric Paulman's land sits over two river basins and he is acutely aware of the importance of water management. (Planet Forward staff)

He is among the producers taking action. Paulman farms 8,500 acres with his son near Sutherland, Nebraska. Their land sits between the Republican and Platte River, in the basin of both.

He’s making decisions on his farm with water and climate in mind.

“At my level I could brush that off and continue to do what I do, but collectively, if there’s a million of us that do that, that’s a pretty big detriment to climate change.”

In many ways, Paulman works with the land to manage water.

After the growing season, he plants cover crops, like rye and oats, which hold in soil moisture and improve how well rainwater can soak into the soil. The roots of these plants hold soil in place in the off season, preventing it from eroding away when the land isn’t producing cash crops.

He also uses soil probes and weather stations in each field to understand how much moisture each part of a field has access to, so he can irrigate at a variable rate and give the plant only the amount it needs to be successful.

When Paulman does irrigate, it is later in the growing season. Where he once started irrigating in May, he now waits until July.

Much of his land is also “ecofallow.” This system uses minimal tillage and improves how the soil holds moisture by planting the land in a rotation.

Paulman also co-founded the Nebraska Water Balance Alliance, an organization advocating for better water management in the state. He even retired 400 acres of his farm and converted it to wildlife habitat.

But Paulman serves as the exception, not the norm. Implementing all these practices takes money and time that some farmers aren’t willing to spend.

Corn
Paulman talks about growing corn and the benefits of cover cropping. (Planet Forward staff)

Cover cropping, for example, has been proven to reduce pollution from nutrient runoff and to improve soil health in a number of measures. Cover crops can often reduce erosion and suppress weeds.

Still, for most farmers the cost and time it takes to implement cover crops outweigh the benefits. In a 2015 UNL survey of 258 Nebraska farmers, 34% used cover crops in the 2014 growing season. Cover crops are even less common in the eastern part of the corn belt. A study released in 2017 found that in the corn and soy fields of the heartland, only 7.1% of farmers used cover crops in Indiana, 2.6% used them in Iowa, and 2.3% used them in Illinois.

Cover crops are planted after the cash crop in the off-season. Shortly before the growing season arrives, they are mowed or killed with chemicals. All of this costs money, and for some farmers the extra work and extra seed cost is not worth the benefit.

But for Paulman, who farms with his son, sees it as an investment worth making for the future.

How do you move the Planet Forward? Tweet us @planet_forward or contribute to the conversation with your own story.