Meet the no-till, fungi-friendly Western Slope farmer
Regenerative agriculture methods have helped one Western Slope farmer be more mindful of how much water he uses.
On a chilly morning 5 miles north of Fruita, Lowell King, standing at the edge of a cornfield, reaches down, grabs a clump of dirt, and starts tearing at the soil with his meaty fingers. King eventually points to a tiny white spot in the dirt. “Anytime you can see stuff almost like that mold right there, that’s fungi,” he says. “And there’s all this other good stuff, and these roots intertwined; that’s what increases your water infiltration.”
King, who’s been farming in the Grand Valley since 2005, is illustrating an important principle of a concept known as regenerative agriculture — a technique he says could help Colorado stretch its dwindling water supplies. But adopting that philosophy also requires rejecting deeply entrenched conventional farming methods, such as tilling fields to prepare the ground for planting.
On his way to embracing this style of farming, King has become something of a self-taught dirt guru. He has a sticker on the back of his truck that reads: “I dig healthy soil.” Several years ago, King heard a North Dakota farmer give a talk at a soil conference about the basic tenets of regenerative ag, which prioritizes limiting any disturbance to the soil as a means to improve the health and yield of a crop. That presentation led King to radically change the way he farms his 300 acres of hay, small grains, non-GMO corn, and cover crops.
At first, King was driven by a desire to improve his bottom line, saving on labor and fuel costs and wear and tear on equipment. “At the end of the day, we’re doing this for a living,” King says. But as he began to alter the way he farmed, King found there were other benefits. Most notably, in a state gripped by a punishing, decades-long drought, where every drop of moisture is akin to a rare jewel, King realized he was using less water.
One of the stark differences between conventional farming and regenerative agriculture methods is that regenerative ag farmers don’t till fields to prepare to plant a crop. The thinking is that churning up the dirt is about the worst thing you can do to a field, and that maintaining soil that’s full of organic matter such as active root systems, earthworms and fungi, helps grow a more productive crop.
“We’ve got all this sunshine everyday,” King says. “Any time there’s bare soil or plants aren’t growing, it’s basically wasted energy.”
What’s more, this nutrient-rich soil holds more moisture, King says. “The water part of it is a huge thing.”
Doing more with less
King grew up on a dairy farm in Pennsylvania. His father used to buy hay from western Colorado and have it shipped in for their dairy operation, so King already had a connection to the Western Slope when he started to think about making a move. Ironically, his relocation was driven in part by a desire to farm where there was less moisture. “I was like, ‘I want to live where I can actually make hay and it doesn’t rain every other day,’” King said.
No one called it regenerative ag where King grew up, but he did think of his father as a conservation-minded farmer. King’s dad planted cover crops, which are a cornerstone of the regenerative agriculture philosophy. Regenerative ag farmers believe that, even if it’s not a cash crop, it’s better to keep something growing in the soil at all times. No-till was also becoming popular back in Pennsylvania.
When King moved to the Western Slope, no one did any of that. Conservation was one thing, but King’s father also taught him that when you show up somewhere new you start by farming like everyone else does, that there’s probably a good reason farmers who have lived in a certain place for several years do things the way they do.
So, King farmed for 10 years using the same conventional methods as everyone else. After he attended the soil health conference, though, he started to make some changes in 2016. One of the things about that presentation that sticks with King today is that the farmer from North Dakota got very emotional when talking about water. “He said, ‘you guys have all the water you want and so you don’t think you need to conserve water,’” King said. “But he said ‘it’s not going to always be that way.’ And that was before there was so much talk about the water situation in the Southwest.”
That time is now. King uses water from the Colorado River to irrigate his fields. A canal system delivers it to his farm. King is one of about 40 million people in seven states that rely on the water in that river one way or another. When it comes to agriculture, farmers and ranchers use water from the Colorado River to irrigate more than 3 million acres of farmland.
As a Christian, I think we’re stewards of the land. It’s not really mine. We’ve been given it and it’s my responsibility and duty to take the best care of it I can.
But a multi-year drought has impacted the level of snowpack in the Rocky Mountains, which results in less snowmelt feeding into the river in the spring. The Colorado River basin, an area that includes the Colorado River and all the rivers and streams that feed into it, has experienced its driest 22-year stretch in more than 100 years, according to the Department of the Interior.
In 2000, the reservoir system in the basin was 95% full; as of fall 2021, the reservoirs were at 39% capacity, the lowest levels ever. Meanwhile, population growth across the West has increased demand for water from the 246,000 square-mile basin.
King worries about that balance. “One of my concerns with water and what they’re talking about,” he said, “is I expect it to come to a point where, whatever happens, big cities, domestic use, will always get the water at the end of the day. If there’s a shortage, agriculture loses every time.”
Change is hard
In 2018, King sold $200,000 of tillage equipment and went all in on no-till and planting rotational cover crops. He said the results have been exceptional. “What I can tell you is that every year I do this, the amount of water I meter is decreasing and we’re growing more crops — we can actually increase production.”
According to the Natural Resources Conservation Service, every additional 1% of organic matter increases the water holding capacity in soil by 27,000 gallons per acre. “That’s pretty crazy when you think about it,” Bryan Reed, instructor of sustainable agriculture at Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction, said. “If you have organic matter in the soil you have these little sponges that can hold onto the water. It keeps the moisture there in your field so you don’t have to irrigate as often.”
Perry Cabot, a water-resources specialist with Colorado State University, said he thinks regenerative agriculture, to the extent that it involves farming that allows farmers to divert less water or plant crops that use less water, does have a role to play in the larger water conversation happening statewide and across the West.
There’s a catch, though, Cabot said. Right now, there’s no way for a farmer to monetize this type of water-saving practice. No incentive. “Instead,” he said, “these would just be scenarios that might result in more water left in the system for a short time, depending on junior water users.”
Indeed, without some kind of program in place, any water left in the river this way is available for other water rights holders to divert. “That’s the dilemma with efficiency savings,” Cabot said. There would need to be a mechanism that prevented other downstream water rights holders from putting the water to use and then allow it to flow to a designated point, a technical process known as shepherding.
King is quick to admit that he’s not a politician and has no interest in getting involved in politics. But he does see a potential solution here. When King hears about proposals to save water by drying up farmland — buy-and-dry in ag parlance — he thinks why can’t we just be more water efficient instead? Rather than paying farmers to let a field sit fallow, King said, why not pay them to plant cover crops that use less water.
“The thing that really frustrates me about that is that part of the solution to the water problem is to improve soil health,” he said. “And when you take land out of production and let it sit fallow with nothing growing, that is one of the worst things possible for soil health.”
As for whether this could all work on a larger scale, Cabot said there’s probably still a little too much tinkering involved to attract the largest farming operations. “They have an entrenched business model,” Cabot said. “Most of them are very set in their operation ways.”
King recognizes that changing habits is one of the biggest challenges in spreading this philosophy he’s become so passionate about. “There’s a lot of farmers who see what we’re doing and they’re interested, but they just can’t get the mindset shift,” he said. “It’s tough because when what we’re taught grows a good crop — for example, plowing a field is what grows a good crop, right? Well, now when I say don’t plow, that destroys your soil — it’s the exact opposite.” King has managed to convert his brother and brother-in-law and collectively they manage 800 acres using these practices.
For his part, King just hopes that farmers aren’t looking back in five or 10 years, wishing they’d done more — whatever it might be — to manage their water. Regardless, King feels privileged to use the Colorado River to make a living and support his family, his wife and their daughters. “As a Christian, I think we’re stewards of the land,” he said. “It’s not really mine. We’ve been given it and it’s my responsibility and duty to take the best care of it I can.”
He thinks other people should have the privilege of using that water, too. He knows ag is a big part of the overall consumption — statewide, the industry accounts for more than 80% of water use in Colorado. The way King sees it, he said it’s only right that ag uses a lot of the water.
“If we don’t have food, nobody else is going to be around,” he said. “However, we need to make better use of the water. We have a lot of room for improvement. We’re trying to do our part here.”
Photography by Barton Glasser, Special to The Colorado Sun.
This story first appeared in Colorado Sunday, a premium magazine newsletter for members. Become a Basic+ Member to get Colorado Sunday in your inbox every week.