Economic Evaluation of Alternative (low-water u...

Economic Evaluation of Alternative (low-water use) Crops for the Great Basin

Economic Evaluation of Alternative (low-water use) Crops for the Great Basin

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The Challenge

Farmers and ranchers in the Great Basin of the western region confront difficulty in remaining profitable with less water, as more water is allocated to residential, municipal, and industrial uses. Walker Lake in northern Nevada is one example.  In the last one hundred and fifty years, water has been diverted from the lake’s inflows for irrigation purposes at five major agricultural areas along the tributary rivers. Results from these diversions include drops in lake level and increases in lake salinity. These outcomes are reducing the habitat and populations of various threatened and endangered species, as well as recreational uses of the lake. Agricultural water rights have been over allocated in the Walker River Basin. According to Carol Bishop, Extension Educator with the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension, policies that have been used in arid climates in the west to enforce water conservation on agricultural producers utilizing irrigation are not always effective. Changes in water management are an alternative to imposing policy such as laws and taxes. To address these problems, producers can reduce the amounts of water applied to crops, change water delivery methods, or switch to alternative crops that use less water.

Searching for a Solution

Bishop created the Western SARE Professional Development Program project Economic Evaluation of Alternative (low-water use) Crops for the Great Basin to “educate producers with pertinent information about alternative low-water-use crops and the associated decision-making tools developed to implement them.”  She anticipated disseminating the information through seminars, with all major learning methods covered, for ag professionals. The goal was that by the end of the project program participants would have increased knowledge and skills regarding sustainable agriculture, as well as an enhanced ability to effectively deliver knowledge and skills to farmers and ranchers.

The project’s objectives were for the participants to:

  • Understand the economic, political, and environmental benefits of reducing water use in agriculture
  • Understand the basic agronomy of alternative crops available to producers in the Great Basin
  • Understand the components of evaluating the economic feasibility of low water use crops
  • Have the ability to use the IRRIG-AID spreadsheet
  • Create plans to introduce seminar curriculum and other SARE resources into producer programming
  • Work one-on-one with producers to evaluate the economic feasibility of alternative low water use crops on their farm/ranch
  • Have the ability to provide an overview of the benefits of utilizing the IRRIG-AID spreadsheet tool and demonstrate its use to producers
  • Assist agricultural producers in implementing low water use crops on their farm/ranch
  • Assist producers with the measurement of changes in water use and resulting environmental improvements such as water and soil quality
  • Assist producers with the measurement of changes in profitability and economic sustainability of alterative crop use

Bishop and her team created a handbook of the curricula, a user manual for IRRIG-AID, and a CD containing the IRRIG-AID spreadsheet, copies of the PowerPoint presentations for the five modules, and a document with links to all websites cited in the curricula and links to further assistance. These were distributed to all participating educators. Workshops were held in various locations and were conducted by video in addition to the in-person workshops.

What was Learned

According to Bishop:

  • Ninety-seven percent of workshop attendees would attend future workshops on agricultural water management and/or alternative crops. On a scale of 1 to 5, the average rating for curriculum content was 3.84. The average increase in knowledge gained over all curriculum subjects was 44%.
  • Of those responding to the six month follow-up survey, 43% have introduced workshop curriculum and other SARE resources into producer programming, 39% have worked one-on-one with producers to evaluate the economic feasibility of alternative low water use crops on their farm/ranch, 35% assisted agricultural producers in implementing low water use crops on their farm/ranch, 35% assisted producers with the measurement of changes in water use and resulting environmental improvements such as water and soil quality, 35% assisted producers with the measurement of changes in profitability and economic sustainability of alternative crop use, and 82% have incorporated some of the material presented in the workshop into their operation/job.

During the project, 1,250 copies of the curriculum were distributed. Eighty-six ag professionals participated in the project’s official workshops. In addition, program summaries and posters were presented at events for educators, USDA agencies, private businesses, among other audiences.

Impacts

The Evaluating Alternative Low-Water-Use Crops for the Great Basin curriculum was selected as a national communication award finalist for a bound book by the National Association of County Agricultural Agents.

Testimonials from participants include:

  • “I am better prepared to answer questions from producers and provide educational programs to help producers with water deficits.”
  • “I am more knowledgeable about alternative crops that may be planted instead of alfalfa in low water years and how they may fit into FSA programs.”
  • “The course helped me with crop selection and pricing.”
  •  “Alternative low H2O use crops will strongly be considered for my alfalfa operation.”
  •  “I can help to implement growing crops to use less water through pipes, sprinklers, and drip, depending on the crop.”

 Post-projects Activities and Impacts

Since the completion of her project, there has been such high demand for the curriculum that Bishop published another 250 copies. The continuing severe drought has created the high demand. Additional CDs have been distributed at regional workshops, especially those sponsored by beginning farmer/rancher and risk management programs, and on reservations in multiple states. The information has proven to be very useful. To reach out to even more ag professionals and producers the publications have been posted to the University of Nevada’s Extension page on “Living with Drought.” Spin-off products include more fact sheets, such as determining profitability. Bishop is assisting with a $4.5 million USDA-NIFA project, led by Staci Emm, entitled “Native Waters on Arid Lands” which brings together scientists, 1862 and 1994 land-grant institutions, and tribal communities of Great Basin and Southwest to address agricultural water challenges. All of these efforts have helped lead to an increasing amount of low water use crops being planted in place of higher water use crops, such as alfalfa, especially in northern Nevada.

View Living with Drought Website

Want more information? See the related SARE grant(s) EW09-007, Economic Evaluation of Alternative (low-water use) Crops for the Great Basin .

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2016 Annual Report

For the first time, we are sharing a yearly snapshot of our work. The stories provided here typify the creative, participatory and integrated research Western SARE annually funds – led by land grant institution researchers and graduate students, Extension and other ag professionals, and nonprofit leaders in full partnership with producers.