In a region facing a growing population and extended periods of drought, a record number of people gathered Friday to discuss future water needs at the Southwestern Water Conservation District’s 33rd annual Water Seminar.
The world’s food supply will need to double by 2050, according to United Nations predictions.
In coming decades, farmers, especially in the western U.S., will need to find a way to meet a growing need for exports with far less water than they have used in the past, said Patrick O’Toole, president of the Family Farm Alliance, to a crowd of about 175 people attending the all-day conference.
“We’ve reached the era of limits, we always thought the West was unlimited,” he said.
It’s not just water that may be scarce in the future.
“We’re watching people go out of agriculture, we’re watching land go out of production,” he said.
For those entering agriculture, like Dustin Stein, this means facing constant problems where not all the solutions are obvious.
“I didn’t experience agriculture before drought,” said Stein, who is the general manager at Stubborn Farm and Burk Beef in Mancos.
Stein, a Denver-area native in his 30s, has been in agriculture since 2011.
Across the state, the average age of farmers hit 58.9 years in 2012, up from 57 years in 2007, according to national agricultural census data.
But for young entrepreneurs who want to start farming, buying land can be nearly impossible. Programs exist to connect older farmers with young people and help them overcome some of the financial barriers, but not enough young people are entering agriculture.
For those who do, drought will present an additional set of challenges, he said.
Stein uses a variety of conservation techniques to help cope with conditions.
He feeds his cattle barley fodder, a mat of grass and roots, which helps conserve water and allows him to run more animals on the same acreage.
He also focuses on the health of his soil to make sure it can hold water and uses soil moisture meters to make sure that he doesn’t over irrigate.
To ensure other young farmers are ready to face the challenges, he called for greater education.
“A lot of these beginning farmer programs are geared to a very small scale. It’s going to be hard to feed the world on a small scale,” he said.