Conservation Agriculture Systems Innovation (CASI) has a vision for California – a vision in which farmers make more money while using less water and protecting the environment. However, the organization has been frustrated that the progress in getting these ag systems adopted by farmers has been rather slow. A member of the CASI executive board and a project director with the California Association of Resource Conservation Districts, Ron Harben, brought up the point with a panel of industry experts at the Water for Food Conference in Lincoln, Neb., May 31.
CASI executive board member Ron Harben (left) and UC Cooperative Extension cropping systems specialist Jeff Mitchell (center) speak with Paul Hicks of Catholic Relief Services during a break at the Water for Food Conference.
Panelist Natalie DiNicola, Vice President of Sustainable Agriculture Partnerships at Monsanto, responded. She said her experience has shown that before adopting new methods, “farmers need to see it for themselves.
“They need to see all the pieces in place,” DiNicola said. “Then, when they do, they are more vocal about asking for the system.”
DiNicola noted that Monsanto has a water utilization learning center in Gothenburg, Neb., where growers are invited to see water utilization and technologies research first hand. The 324-acre research farm is the site of multiple cropping system demonstrations focusing on the challenges farmers face in high-plains agriculture.
Nebraska farmers have demonstrated their willingness to adopt new technologies in their farming systems. In the 1970s, extension educators conducted research on how center pivots could be installed and managed in the field. Still, in the early 1980s, only 40 percent of farmers used overhead center pivot irrigation systems. Restrictions on water use were imposed as the result of a 1998 lawsuit in which the State of Kansas alleged Nebraska had violated a longstanding water agreement by allowing farmers to drill thousands of irrigation wells along rivers and tributaries, according to William Kranz, a University of Nebraska extension irrigation specialist. The suit between the states was settled, and water use restrictions implemented in Nebraska, but the issue of water sharing is still contentious.
Because of the water restrictions, furrow-irrigated acres in Nebraska’s North Platte Valley were converted to center pivots at a rate of about 10,000 acres per year between 2000 and 2010. Today, 85,000 center pivot irrigation systems are used in Nebraska.
“It was an economic decision for farmers,” Kranz said.
Though not faced with the same challenges in water availability, CASI is working with innovative farmers in the California Central Valley to put together an educational initiative aimed at communicating the benefits of conservation agriculture approaches and encouraging more growers to implement this type of farming system. Benefits include reductions in fuel use, production costs and dust emissions; and increases in carbon sequestration and irrigation efficiency.
CASI plans to share information about conservation agriculture with growers by initiating an information outreach campaign, acquiring equipment to share with farmers, planting conservation cropping systems demonstration projects throughout the Central Valley and establishing a farmer training and farm educator program.
The organization is currently undertaking a development campaign to generate funding for this ambitious effort.