They're aimed at making improvements, despite the odds.
“The whole point of Soil Health is that all these people work together to make this work,” said John Harold, an Olathe farmer and member of the Soil Health project, begun two years ago in response to mounting concern about increasing production costs, poor soil health and insensible practices.
“Do we have all the answers? No, but we are working on it,” he said.
Harold has traveled with his son David, who returned to the family business about five years ago, to places like Mexico and Germany investigating better ways to farm. The two men are convinced that the United States is behind the curve when it comes to efficiency in farming.
For John Harold, the goal is to make sure his son can stay in agriculture.
“We want the next generation to do things smarter and better than our generation,” he told U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet on April 3.
Bennet visited David Harold's Olathe farm to learn more about Soil Health, including specifics about how a subsurface drip system can eliminate over-irrigating, host a longer crop season and produce a better yield.
“My objective was to see the efforts these farmers are making in terms of soil and water quality,” Bennet told The Watch.
A subsurface drip is a low-pressure, high-efficiency irrigation system that uses buried drip tubes or drip tape to meet crop water needs, according to the Colorado State University Extension.
On a 100-acre plot, a Soil Health system can put out 2.5- to 3-feet of water per hour, without the application being seen at the surface level. This method, which originated in Israel (although Harold said it has been used in Mexico for many years) helps to eliminate leaching, and keeps the nutrients vital to the crop right at its root. With the Soil Health system, a drip-irrigated plot can yield up to two times the amount yielded by a field that’s irrigated using the traditional pipes and ditches.
The fact that farmers don't have to shut off their water while the field is being harvested helps to facilitate the improved yield, said Irrigation Specialist Scott Boles. Another plus: the system uses less water – one-sixth of a gallon per hour – than a traditional irrigation system.
Bennet said that hard economic times call for innovation, and applauded the local farmers for their efforts on that front.
“We are trying to improve what we do with the water, and improve the quality of water we send downstream,” Harold told Bennet.
To enhance production levels and soil health on regional farms, however, the Harolds say, they must first prove to neighboring farmers that there is a better way. To that end, the Soil Health Project has teamed up with both the Montrose and Delta economic development organizations and secured a three-year, $1.35 million grant from the Cooperation Conservation Partnership Initiative to facilitate local irrigation-enhancement nefforts.
“The CCPI grant will allow for individual farmers to receive incentive payments in Delta and Montrose counties, and focuses on healthy soils,” said Sarah Carlquist, director for Delta County Economic Development. “It allows for research practices, experimentation and data collection. The three-year program focuses on composting, cover crops and crop rotations.”
David Harold is utilizing some of the grant funds for planning, he said. The plan will evaluate the feasibility of using cover crops and compost as part of his crop rotation.
Some of the risks inherent in experimenting with new practices are offset, thanks to the safety net provided by the federal grants.
“It's hard to convince a guy to drop everything and try something new,” David Harold said, “when they already were doing something they know works.”
Farmers learn how to incorporate what they know is profitable, he explained, “but that may not be the best practice.” To “do something that is better for the soil [and] the water,” he pointed out, “there are risks involved and it takes money to do those things.
Soil Health’s determination to create practices that are both good for the environment and profitable has attracted interest from other organizations and individuals.
Delta-Montrose Electric Association General Manager Dan McClendon has been exploring efficiency ideas with the group, such as how to facilitate the drip system's ability to run unattended. This may mean using the drip system at night, taking power needed for creating water pressure from DMEA's grid during low-peak hours. McClendon is also exploring ways to leverage hydroelectric and other resources to help fund efficiency measures that fit in with DMEA's mission, he said.
Grant money for the project comes through the U.S. Natural Resource Conservation Services and is allotted through the Farm Bill, Bennet said.
Bennet and other lawmakers have started the negotiation process for the 2012 Farm Bill. The debate will focus on multiple areas, including farmland protection, conservation and stewardship, and on farming economic development as well, so that farmers can stay on their lands.
Bennet has said he will work to ensure that programs like Soil Health, which already meet lawmakers’ stated goals, are protected.