Colorado ag experts say industry’s future is defined by water | TheFencePost.com

Colorado ag experts say industry’s future is defined by water

Bridgett Weaver

Conserving and storing water, as well as educating the public, will be key to keeping Colorado's agriculture sector thriving in the future, experts said last week at the annual Colorado Ag Classic.

The group of experts gathered this week at the Embassy Suites to talk about the future of agriculture and how to sustain growth in the industry. About 150 people came to the three-day event, which concluded Wednesday.

That future will look different for every industry within agriculture, and it could even look different on each farm, the experts said.

For grain producers in Colorado, for example, sustainability could mean finding a grain variety that will grow bigger with less water. For livestock producers, it could mean feeding the livestock grain that is grown locally and will help the animals grow in the way the producer wants.

“Agriculture is important to sustainability in the state. It’s not a sustainable state if we can’t grow our own food.”

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"One of the really interesting trends that we see happening is the big companies … are getting involved in actively defining and implementing sustainability measures," said Reagan Waskom, executive director of Colorado Water Institute.

Waskom moderated the four-person panel, which included James Eklund, executive director of Colorado Water Conservation Board; James Pritchett, executive association dean for CSU's College of Agricultural Sciences; Dave Eckhardt, president of the Colorado Corn Growers Association; and Mark Linnebur, vice president of the Colorado Wheat Growers board of directors.

Eklund said the conversation Wednesday could not be more timely, as the Water Conservation Board just turned over the Colorado Water Plan to Gov. Hickenlooper.

He said water is a vital part of sustainability in Colorado because it's essential to almost everything, especially agriculture.

"Agriculture is important to sustainability in the state," Eklund said. "It's not a sustainable state if we can't grow our own food."

The whole panel agreed water is a huge player in the future of agriculture in Colorado.

"Water sustainability is a big, big player — not just for Denver and the Front Range, but the rest of Colorado," Linnebur said, "because if we run out of water, those towns dry up."

Sustainability in regard to water would include both conservation and storage options, Eklund said.

It also should include incentivizing farmers against buy-and-dry land sales. A buy-and-dry land sale occurs when farmers sell their land and its water shares to a city or company, which diverts the water and takes the land out of commission for agricultural purposes. Because water shares are so valuable, it's often the most convenient and profitable way for farmers to handle their land. But the best way to stop buy and dry is to give farmers a better option, he said.

"We know that we will not be sustainable if we continue down the road we're going," he said. "If this continues, buy and dry will outstrip agriculture in my lifetime."

Eckhardt, who farms in LaSalle, said he also thought water is at the center of sustainability.

"It's purely reliant on our ability to divert water to have water to go ahead and produce," he said.

But Eckhardt voiced concerns about the future of agriculture in the state because of the rapidly growing population.

Pritchett said he sees the growth as an opportunity for farmers and ranchers.

"As the population of Colorado grows, that provides a great opportunity for our farmers and ranchers in Colorado," he said.

That opportunity comes first in food production, and second in agritourism and other secondary farm businesses, which create financial security, he said.

It's also imperative for those in agriculture industries to work with residents in the urban areas to help them understand how important ag is, Pritchett said.

"I think the vast majority of people don't know where their food comes from. For people in urban areas, water comes out of the tap and food comes from the grocery store," he said. "We have got to make sure that people in our urban centers are having a conversation with people who know what the heck they're doing in rural Colorado." ❖

Colorado Ag Water Summit

The next symposium for agriculture industries will be the Colorado Ag Water Summit. It will run from 7:30 a.m.-7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the First National Bank Building at The Ranch in Loveland, 5280 Arena Circle. To find out more or to register for the event, go to http://www.coloradocorn.com or http://www.coagwater.colostate.edu.