Nature is a tough business partner. Just ask any farmer or rancher. That truth is hitting hard for our friends out West this year where they are experiencing extreme drought conditions from California all the way to North Dakota. While farmers can only pray for rain and relief from the record temperatures, there is more that can be done to help manage water resources and ensure our farms and food supply are protected rain or shine.
We are experiencing unusual drought condition across the country this year, but the West has been hit especially hard. The latest reports show that nearly 70% of the region (including the Dakotas) is in severe drought. This same time last year, less than 20% of the region fell into the severe drought range. Our economists at the American Farm Bureau are currently surveying members across our Western states to assess the impact on farm businesses and our food supply. The results are still coming in, but the toll these conditions are taking is already clear. Over 70% of respondents so far have reported “reduced surface water deliveries” as extremely prevalent in their area. A third of respondents report that fewer crops have been planted due to conditions, and nearly half say that “selling off portions of the herd/flock” is extremely prevalent in their state or county. These numbers represent real farm families and the painful decisions affecting their livelihoods.
I spent the last couple weeks traveling throughout the West and met with farmers and ranchers who don’t know how much longer they can hold out. A fifth-generation rancher in northern Arizona told me how he is carrying water out to pasture for his cattle every day. If their summer monsoon season doesn’t come through, he’ll be forced to sell off what remains of the herd. Farmers in Utah and Idaho shared similar stories, where the water supply to farms has already been cut back. Utah Farm Bureau President Ron Gibson is worried about the survival of his 150-year-old family farm as his water supply was cut back 70% this summer with 90% of the state in severe drought. Just last week, California announced that water will likely be shutoff through winter for 6,600 farmers in the Central Valley.
In times of crisis and severe weather, everyone is called on to do their part. In my home state of Georgia during seasons of drought, we have been asked to limit water use, follow strict watering schedules for home yards and gardens, and install low-pressure faucets to conserve water. I expect the same holds true for homes and businesses across the West, but cutting off farmers who already carefully conserve water places everyone at risk. To paint a broad picture: More than 80% of our nation’s fruits, nuts and vegetables, more than 55% of our wheat, more than 40% of dairy, and nearly 30% of cattle production come from the western half of the country.
Farmers know the nation is counting on us to produce food, fiber and fuel safely and sustainably, and we are always looking for ways to do better. Thanks to innovation and technology, farmers are using fewer resources to grow more. In fact, we have gotten so efficient that it would have taken nearly 100 million more acres 30 years ago to match today’s production levels. No matter how efficient we get on the farm, however, we can’t make more rain and snow fall from the sky. But our nation can invest in the critical infrastructure that stores and carries this precious resource to our farms and communities.
In my travels West, folks in every state shared how water infrastructure is in dire need of an upgrade. Much of our federal water infrastructure—including canals, dams and reservoirs—is 50 to 100 years old. Let that sink in. Modernizing our water infrastructure is just as critical to our farms and communities as repairing our roads and bridges. We cannot afford to lose another drop of water due to cracks in infrastructure. We can and will continue to pray for good seasons of rain and snow. In the meantime, Congress and the Administration must ensure our western neighbors have the resources needed to protect this vital resource.
Vincent “Zippy” Duvall, a poultry, cattle and hay producer from Greene County, Georgia, is the 12th president of the American Farm Bureau Federation.