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Conservation Helps Farmers Tough Out Drought

Posted: 08/07/2012 4:04 pm

LAMAR, COLO. -- A third-generation farmer and rancher in southeast Colorado, Jensen Stulp lives close to the land, supporting his family on what it provides and working to keep it fertile and strong.

To protect his topsoil from blowing away in the winds off the plains, Stulp uses a kind of drill to poke holes in the ground at planting time, instead of gouging out the land with a plough. He lets his wheat fields lie fallow every other year to prevent depletion of the prairie soil. For pasture, he relies mostly on buffalo grass, a tough and resilient native plant that can stand up to blistering heat. He cuts his wheat so that knee-high stubble remains in the ground after harvest, providing valuable ground cover that helps return nutrients to the field, keep weeds at bay and capture the moisture from snow and rain. 

"It's a more natural way of farming," Stulp explained, pausing to reflect on the link between his own livelihood and stewardship of his land alongside the old Santa Fe Trail.

"Farmers and ranchers were the first environmentalists," he said. "We only work off what the land gives us. If we use the land the way the good Lord designed it, we'll do better."

Watch Jensen Stulp describe the 2012 drought impacting farmers and ranchers in the nation's heartland.

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(Photo by Melanie Blanding)

For centuries, American farmers like Stulp have nurtured the ties between nature and food, developed techniques for protecting precious resources like water and land and taken pride in their record as responsible caretakers of the land.

Seldom has all of that been more important than now.

With drought drying up 63 percent of the country as of early August, half of the country's corn crop is in ruins, along with 60 percent of its pasture land.

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(Photo by Melanie Blanding)

Lamar is bone dry; its irrigation canals dried up in early July. In late June the temperature here hit an all-time record high of 111 degrees three days in a row, shattering the previous record of 107 set in 1963.

No amount of careful tending to the long-term health of the land can safeguard farmers and ranchers from the ravages of that kind of heat and drought.

Steps taken to nurture and protect pastures, water and croplands, though, add a measure of resilience to a ranch or farm. That can make the difference between a poor crop and no crop at all for families and communities living on the razor's edge of what is shaping up to be a disastrous summer on the American farm.

"There's a strong tie between natural resource conservation and getting through tough times," said John Knapp, the area conservationist in southeast Colorado for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service. "The opportunity for these guys to survive is contingent, in a large part, on what's the health of the land that they use."

Folks in this part of the country learned that lesson in the hardest of ways during the Dust Bowl, eight decades ago, when sustained drought and wind combined with exploitive farming practices to strip out hundreds of millions of tons of topsoil. The loss devastated up to 100 million acres of land, much of which was left in ruins for decades, if not generations.

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Dust Bowl tales, within living memory for some, haunt these flatlands and follow farmers like Jensen Stulp.


"There's still sorry land from that," he said, and still the fear of what can happen to topsoil that goes bare and dry.


"If we can't get something growing out there, it'll start blowing, and, once it starts blowing, the whole field can blow away," Stulp said. "Once you lose the topsoil, you don't have anything left but sterile soil."


To help prevent that, Stulp cuts only the grain-bearing heads off the tip of his wheat, leaving the stubble to help protect and nourish the soil.


"All that organic material and the roots are still in there. ... It will decompose and then go right back into the soil," he said, gesturing across a broad field. "This kind of a natural blanket that we have here gives moisture a fighting chance of staying in the ground, and it's a natural defense against weeds."


Through those kinds of practices, and an array of others, Stulp represents a breed of progressive rancher, Knapp said in a telephone interview, whose attention to conservation measures is paying off in tough times.


"They go into a serious situation like this with healthy plants, and not plants that are already borrowing from their reserves," Knapp said. "They're the folks that can probably get through something like this."


Not all farmers share a conservation ethic, of course. Some -- especially large corporate-owned farms and feedlots -- are responsible for vast amounts of sediment, fertilizer, pesticide and animal waste that makes its way into the nation's waterways, causing broad dead zones that already threaten iconic waters like the Gulf of Mexico and the Chesapeake Bay.


Across much of the heartland, though, farmers and ranchers are showing increased interest in practices that help to improve the quality and health of land, air, water, habitat and wildlife. In Colorado, farmers and ranchers are lining up for federal funds to help them adopt better conservation habits.


"There's quite a bit more demand for it than there are resources," said Knapp, whose office helps to administer programs like the USDA’s popular Environmental Quality Incentives Program for ranchers and farmers. As of last year, the program was providing $865 million in financial and technical assistance to nearly 39,000 farmers affecting some 13.1 million acres of land nationwide, on existing or fulfilled contracts.


While no guarantee against losses, sound conservation practices are proving their worth amid this year's heat and drought.


Stulp's winter wheat crop normally yields 20 or 25 bushels per acre and, in a good year, as much as 40. This year, he's in the single digits in some fields. Even that, said Knapp, is a credit to Stulp's efforts to husband his land.


Other of his fields, though, are a total loss.


"This is the biggest heartbreaker," he said, looking out over a parched and barren field. "There's not a single wheat kernel in any of that."


One field over, a slump in the land held a bit more moisture.


Stulp plucked the head of a stalk from each field, then held them out in his hand. One, hardly robust, had 26 wheat kernels, or berries, in the head. The other head was shriveled and bare.

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(Photo by Melanie Blanding)

 "The difference is this one ran out of moisture and this one had a little more moisture that was in this dip," he explained. "We're getting affected by the drought in everything we do."

Pasture land that should have pale green buffalo grass 2 inches high is a khaki mat of dust, stubble and weeds. With little for his cattle to graze on there, Stulp is feeding them hay and silage left over from past years. When it's gone, he said, he'll have to start selling cattle, no matter how low the price, as many of his neighbors began doing weeks ago.

Stulp can't say whether it's climate change, but something in the southeast corner of Colorado is different.

"There is a change in the weather, no doubt," he said, recalling boyhood summers when he ran barefoot through pastures of rich buffalo grass. To do so now would leave bare feet in ribbons, sliced by thistles, roots and stones.

"I'd say we had a drought year maybe one in every four or five years, and now we have a good year every four or five years," he said. "We've had to adjust to what the environment's been giving us, in terms of more drought, more drought, more drought."

That's meant increasingly assertive efforts at stewardship that has become an article of faith for Stulp.

"If you don't take care of the land," he said, "the land can't take care of you."

 
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