Every day is Ag Day
This week marks the 45th celebration of Earth Day. I remember where I was on the first Earth Day — standing in a crowd at my high school in Cincinnati, Ohio. There were a lot of speeches that have faded into history. But I remember that I liked the idea of setting aside a day to celebrate the planet. I began to understand the importance of clean air and clean water, protecting wildlife, and the problems caused by acid rain, which, if memory serves, was a big issue at the time.
In an essay about the origins of Earth Day, the late Sen. Gaylord Nelson from Wisconsin, considered the founder of Earth Day, wrote that the idea took root in late 1969 when he invited the public to participate in a national grassroots demonstration the following spring about environmental problems. “The American people finally had a forum to express its concern about what was happening to the land, rivers, lakes and air — and they did so with spectacular exuberance.”
Over the years, my own idea of Earth Day has evolved into more of a lifestyle; I try to celebrate Earth Day every day by thinking about how my actions impact the natural cycles of the planet.
In March, citizens across the country celebrated a different day — National Agriculture Day — to honor farmers and ranchers. In Denver, according to CBS News, Gov. John Hickenlooper, while noshing on Colorado-grown food, spoke about the role of agriculture in the state. “I like to point out to the other governors that in 25 of the top agricultural commodities that are available in this [country], Colorado is in the top 10,” he said.
Like Earth Day, Ag Day got the public to acknowledge the importance of something that’s a part of our daily lives but often goes unnoticed. In this case, it’s the farmers and ranchers, big and small, who produce our food.
Educational programs and camps have sprung up across the country to teach kids that their food does not come from the supermarket. So the idea of having a national day to match beef with a cow and connecting the cow with the rancher who raises it, or a zucchini with a plant that’s grown in a field or garden is a good thing.
But, unlike Earth Day, National Ag Day is unfortunately not an official call to action. Yes, eating good food is a great way to celebrate agriculture, but growers are facing some big challenges of which many of us who eat that food are not aware.
There’s not enough room in this column to tackle all the current agriculture issues. So I’ll focus on water, arguably the biggest agriculture issue throughout the American West.
Last week, an NPR story about redistributing water in California called into question “first in time, first in right” — the basic law of water in the West. Because of a four-year drought that shows no sign of let-up, water supplies are dangerously low in California (this year’s snowpack in the Sierra Nevada was 6 percent of average). That means those with senior water rights get first call and those with junior rights may not get any at all. The story suggests that this way of handling water could be obsolete.
Leon Szeptycki, director of Water in the West at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, told NPR that in the 19th century, the U.S. government wanted people to settle and cultivate the land. Secure water rights ensured agricultural development. But, he added, “When water is really scarce, people might say that it should go first to ensure public safety and health, then to irrigate the most [monetarily] valuable crops, like almond orchards.”
California’s water woes may be catching headlines, but Colorado faces its own water problems. The Colorado state water plan says so. And it’s surprising how many residents know nothing about the plan. But that’s a whole other story.
The Colorado River serves about 40 million people in seven states, and agriculture has a lot to lose as demands on the river increase. The problem is that there are no new water sources. Basically, what falls in the mountains each winter is what we get in the summer unless we’ve saved some in reservoirs. And, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and water experts, Colorado River water is already over-allocated.
Agriculture uses about 80 percent of that water, and Colorado agriculture producers may at some point be looking at the same circumstances as California’s growers. Discussion is under way about how to make sure everybody gets their fair share of water, but there are more questions than answers.
Will we have less food? Less room for alfalfa or hay fields or more fallow fields? Will agriculture producers be forced to prove efficient use of the water they have a right to use? How many ranches and farms will be purchased just for the water rights and what effect will this have on communities, tourism and agriculture exports?
Water supplies, food sources, the livelihood of my ranching friends and the agricultural heritage of Colorado are dependent on water, and I think about this stuff all the time. For me, every day is Ag Day.
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