Climate Whiplash: Four Corners Residents and Ranchers Adapting to Weather Extremes

MANCOS, Colo. – Climate change has been called the new normal. But after the past two years, residents in some parts of the Southwest say there’s nothing normal about it.

Communities in the Four Corners – where Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona meet – have been bouncing between desperate dryness and record-breaking moisture since the winter of 2017, forcing people dependent on the reliability and predictability of water to adapt.

On a recent warm, sunny day, rancher Dustin Stein pushed down the wires of an electric fence with his left foot while he swung his other leg over into an irrigated pasture. His black and brown steers grazed on the late summer grass.

The mustachioed 30-something has managed Stubborn Farms and Burk Beef outside Mancos, a small town in southwestern Colorado, for seven years.

“We’re a ‘sperm to steak’ grass-fed beef operation,” Stein said with a laugh. Calves born on the ranch are raised here, and their meat sold directly to consumers. His focus is on the health of the soil and the needs of his cows.

If you want a sense of what climate change is doing to agriculture in the Southwest, and how individuals are reacting to unprecedented weather, this is a good place to see those effects on a small scale.

“We’ve set records almost every year, good or bad,” Stein said. “So hot, so dry. So much snow, the river’s too high. It’s just incredibly bipolar.”

In parts of the Four Corners, the winter of 2017-18 was one of the driest ever recorded, kicking off the latest intensification of a prolonged dry period that’s stretched two decades. Rivers ran at some of their lowest flows ever recorded during spring runoff in 2018.

The summer of 2018 was the hottest on record across most of the Colorado Plateau. From October 2017 to September 2018, the region experienced the driest weather in more than a century of recordkeeping.

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To grow forage for his cattle, Stein draws irrigation water from the Mancos River, a tributary of the San Juan, which eventually empties into the Colorado River. It’s a key water source for the ranchers and farmers in this agricultural valley. The river used to be reliable, Stein said.

“We’ve got fairly senior water rights in the Mancos Valley,” he said. “Our water hadn’t gone off until 2002. Since 2002, it’s gone off almost every year at some point in the year.”

With irrigation water tapped out in the summer of 2018 and his pastures browning, Stein made the expensive decision to send all his cows and calves to high mountain pastures owned by a custom grazing operation 200 miles to the north, near Gunnison.

“Because there was no way that we were going to be able to economically keep them fed here in the valley,” he said.

Recouping the cost of 2018’s hot, dry summer will take a while, he said. A cow is not a quick-turn investment, especially when you’re running a small scale grass-fed operation. The value of an animal is wrapped up in her genetics and overall health, he said, not how rapidly her calves pack on weight.

“That’s the hardest part for me is it’s such a long fiscal cycle,” Stein said. “From the time I breed a cow to the time I see revenue from her calf is three years.”

Stein thought he was out of the woods when snow started flying at the start of last winter. At its height in the spring, snowpack in some parts of the nearby San Juan Mountains was at its highest level ever, prompting parched communities to quickly prepare for flooding.

“This year’s had its own challenges,” Stein said. “We had so much snow. The river was higher this year than it had been in 60 or 70 years. So there was a lot of challenges actually getting our irrigation water.”

The spigot turned off again this summer, when the trend toward above-average heat and below-average moisture returned. Drought conditions have been slowly worsening in the Four Corners region since late July.

“It’s made me realize that nothing is very predictable,” Stein said. “And I need to kind of manage more short term, week to week or day to day.

“I feel like I haven’t had a break in I don’t know, 18 months.”

For ranchers like Stein, climate change is not some far-off future problem. It’s affecting people now, he said.
This feeling that Stein is talking about, of being jerked around, lurching from one small weather-related crisis to the next, has a name, according to Gregg Garfin, climatologist and researcher at the University of Arizona: Climate whiplash.

Garfin took a deep dive into what climate change effects look like in the Southwest as a contributor to the Fourth National Climate Assessment, a summary of scientific research released by the federal government in late 2018. Garfin coordinated a group of scientists to compile their findings in the report’s chapter that focuses on the southwestern U.S.

They found strong evidence of rising temperatures. That alone causes a sort of domino effect, where the higher temperatures upend the accumulation of snowpack and when it melts. That can then lead to a mismatch between a runoff period and when cities and ranchers need the water. The higher temperatures also sap more moisture from the already arid soil, and pull more water from rivers and reservoirs in the form of evaporation. When precipitation does arrive, it’s less effective than it used to be.

“Then if you combine that with some kinds of disturbances, such as tree mortality like we’ve seen, mortality in ponderosa pine, piñon-juniper woodlands, and also fires,” Garfin said. “Those things can reset ecosystems.”
A woodland might come back as a shrubland. Or a shrubland might return as a grassland, and a grassland might turn into a desert.

All these changes combined can, in turn, limit which livelihoods are able to survive in a given area. For agriculturalists, there’s lots of talk about adapting to this changing climate. But for small scale operations, rearranging a farm or ranch to withstand the whiplash is expensive.

“It’s a cost,” said Carrie Padgett, a water engineer for Harris Water in Durango. “It’s something you have to plan for.”

Padgett points to irrigation. Much of that infrastructure was built almost a century ago, and it’s under strain from both drought and flood. Using more efficient irrigation often requires upgrades to water infrastructure on farms, and many individual farmers and their associated ditch companies aren’t always able to foot the cost, she said.

“I think most people are living day-to-day in their operations and they’re not able to have that forethought to really save the money to plan for those future costs or replacements,” Padgett said.

In Mancos, Stein is thinking about making changes to his ranch to better mirror the erratic weather. He’s shortening up his management timeline and focusing on keeping the ranch running without spending too much time trying to predict what next week’s weather will bring.

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Unlike some of the old-timers who ranch nearby, Stein is young enough that he’ll likely be around to see climate change reshape the Southwest. Most of the forecasts in the National Climate Assessment project out to 2050, when Stein will be in his 60s.

He knows his Mancos Valley is a fragile, precarious place to be in a hotter, drier future.

“We’re literally on the edge of 14,000-foot mountains in between dry, dry desert,” Stein said. “And so I can see how that dry desert will slowly creep in towards us.”

But there’s something exciting about being an early adapter, on the front lines of people feeling the effects of climate change, and being nimble enough to change with it, he said. At least for now.

If he’s able, he’ll be taking an historic livelihood and figuring out how to keep it going even when it looks like the card deck is stacked against it.

“That terrifies me to think about having to move from this valley or find another line of work. At this point in my life, I’m really not willing to do that.

“And so I’m inspired to figure out how to make it work. That’s the only option.”

This story is part of a project covering the Colorado River, produced by KUNC and supported through a Walton Family Foundation grant. KUNC is solely responsible for its editorial content.

Millennials Use Technology to Ensure the Future of Arizona Ranching and Farming

PHOENIX – The median age of a farmer or rancher in Arizona is 55 to 64. It’s part of a nationwide trend as fewer young people go into agriculture. But three Arizona millennials are hoping to use their passion and the technology they grew up with to ensure the future of the state’s agribusinesses, which generated $23.3 billion in 2017.

In a rural stretch of Arizona between Phoenix and Yarnell, two cowboys struggle to get a stubborn cow to stand up and move through a narrow wooden chute. She’s lying down because there’s no room to turn around. The cow is one of a dozen or so roped by Ty Sorrells, who rides into rough country on horseback to round up stray and feral cattle; he found these near Lake Pleasant.

Garrett Lacey, a livestock officer for the Arizona Department of Agriculture, looks over the cows, which will be trucked to a ranch and auctioned off. Lacey needs to inspect them before that. He writes down how many bulls and heifers are in the bunch.

“The auction requires us to make sure that Ty didn’t steal these cows,” said Lacey, who’s in his early 20s and one of the youngest livestock officers in the agriculture department.

That’s where Lacey comes in. His paperwork, which Sorrells signs on Lacey’s iPad, is proof that the cowboy is legit.

“At the sale barn, they’re going to ask Ty for his paperwork, so that paperwork is going to match the load that they’re coming in,” Lacey said.

To inspect livestock before they’re transported or slaughtered, Lacey drives his truck hundreds of miles for his job, listening to podcasts to pass the time.

To him, being a millennial in agriculture means using technology to help things along, such as having people send self-inspection paperwork to his phone instead of making a trip for one or two head of cattle.

“It’s super nice where … where I can just … text me or email and I’ll email it, I’ll send a screenshot, and it’s gone,” Lacey said.

And he’s all over cowboy social media, where people show off their roping catches – legal or not. Lacey monitors Snapchat and YouTube for any kind of illicit activity, but most of the time, he said, it’s difficult to determine where videos were taken or whether the cow technically was captured illegally.

Lacey finishes his paperwork for Sorrells’ cattle before heading to his next assignment.

On our ride-along, we pass through the part of metro Phoenix where he grew up, which he says shaped his life path.

“This is what I knew. We always ran around and played in the river bottom,” Lacey said.

That’s the kind of background you’ll often hear about when speaking with young farmers and ranchers. Many take pride in being a multigenerational farmer.

Alexander Khan does not fit that definition. The 24-year-old rancher is a graduate of Brophy College Preparatory in Phoenix and heading to law school soon. His family just bought a cattle ranch near Perkinsville, northwest of Cottonwood.

“I also am really drawn to the work that’s involved, the lifestyle and everything that goes into having an operation that is closely connected to the land,” Khan said.

The Census Bureau says more than 2,500 Arizona farmers are younger than 35, and almost half are Native American. In addition, most of the operations run by young producers are beef, sheep and goat ranches.

Khan, too, thinks his generation realizes the potential in using the technology they grew up with to make a better ranch.

“A lot of people my age are coming together and talking about what they’re doing on their ranches and how they’re incorporating data tools and new technology to make ranching more effective, more sustainable and more profitable as well,” he said.

Ty Sorrell rounds up strays and wild cattle to sell at auction – but first he must be able to prove he didn’t steal them. (Photo by Casey Kuhn/KJZZ)

And Khan isn’t just talking about the environment.

“Just kind of making sure these things are sustainable not only ecologically but sustainable as lifestyles and business practices that we can carry into the future,” he said.

The high cost of entry, which includes buying expensive land, harvesters and material, can be a major barrier for young producers.

“The average farm story is, you’re one bad crop away from total failure,” Khan said.

Selwyn Justice has the farming background Khan does not; he says his family has farmed in America since the 1600s.

Justice, 30, runs a U-pick citrus farm in Surprise. And he really knows his citrus, growing 76 varieties.

“We also have the cara cara, which is a pigmented navel that a lot of people mistake for a variety of blood orange, which it’s not. But speaking of blood oranges, we have a couple of blood oranges, too,” he said.

Justice has diversified by using his farm as more of an education experience. He also helps a friend, who found Justice through Facebook, grow his cactus in a small nursery plot.

In addition, Justice is a member of the National Young Farmers Coalition, an advocacy group that hosts seminars, such as a legal presentation on water rights in Arizona. The federal government also has funding and support programs for new farmers.

The future of farming rests in millennials’ hands, with a look toward more sustainability to keep farming a viable career moving forward.

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.

Harvesting Solar Could Help Small-Scale Farmers Improve Sustainability

BOULDER COUNTY, Colo. – A third generation farmer will soon attempt a new form of barn raising. Rather than just grow crops or raise livestock, Byron Kominek wants to harvest sunshine

A former U.S. diplomat in southern Africa with a master’s degree in environmental engineering, Kominek has since reinvented himself as a small-scale farmer and renewable energy advocate. At present, his goal is to install five acres of solar panels on 24 acres of farmland, which his grandfather Jack purchased in 1972.

An aerial view of the solar panels at Jack’s Solar Garden. (Artwork courtesy of Jack’s Solar Garden by artist Jeff Slemons)

Although the farm has had good years, the profit margin on crops like hay and alfalfa had declined. “Over the past few years we’ve lost money on the farm,” Kominek said. To compensate for the loss of revenue, he plans to co-locate solar panels with agricultural production.

Jack’s Solar Garden is among the first (perhaps the only farm) on the Front Range to do this and it could be the future of farming. The practice is known as agrivoltaics, a mashup of agriculture and photovoltaic, which are devices designed to generate power directly from the sun.

If agrivoltaics reduces the operating costs on farms and ranches of Colorado, farmers in California are bound to take notice. Agriculture consumes 8% of the energy used in the state, much of that is used for pumping groundwater and irrigation on 5 million acres of farmland in the Central and Imperial Valleys. Therefore, solutions aimed at reducing energy and water consumption can have a huge impact on a farmer’s bottom line.

For now, the technology has a Whole Earth Catalog tang to it, recalling an era of geodesic domes and off-the-grid pot farms. Although the hippies’ back-to-the-land movement waned during the 70s, their influence has endured. In rural towns across the U.S. organic farming and marijuana cultivation is an essential, if not, increasingly mainstream part of the rural economy. Meanwhile, interest in sustainable farming continues to increase, due to concern over the specter of climate shocks, such as drought and food security.

According to the U.N. solving food-energy-water nexus is central to sustainable development. The demand for all three is increasing due to the global rise in population, industrialization and the growth of the global economy. Agriculture consumes one-third of the world’s freshwater supply and accounts for 25% of the energy consumed.

The purpose of agrivoltaics is to untangle this resource conundrum. Enabling farmers to diversify their income by producing renewable energy, while preserving much of their land for crop production. Typically, it’s an array of solar panels perched high enough above the ground to grow shade-tolerant plants beneath them with enough clearance to allow people, livestock and farm equipment to pass.

Oregon vineyard in the Willamette Valley wine region utilizing solar power. (Photo courtesy Jason Lander/Creative Commons License)

After discussing the benefits of agrivoltaics with friends in Colorado and realizing the myriad of challenges that he faced, Komineck saw an opportunity. “I thought, ‘Why not try it on our farm?’” he said.

He worked with Boulder officials in updating land use code to allow community solar gardens on more farmland across the county. By year’s end, the farm could have 3,000 panels set in rows 17 feet apart. Each row will track the sun from east to west. Dubbed Jack’s Solar Garden after his grandfather, his website offers renderings of his vision for the what the project will look like upon completion.

In addition to growing crops beneath solar panels, Komineck has plans to generate 1.2 megawatts of electricity, enough power to supply up to 300 homes connected to the grid. Under this rubric, consumers will purchase energy from Jack’s Solar Garden in much the same way they can purchase produce directly from farmers. But instead of selling fruits and vegetables, this CSA will produce electricity. “We’ll be selling subscriptions to the community and to large institutions,” he said.

If that wasn’t ambitious enough, he also intends to plant an apple orchard and keep bees. To stay on track, Komineck has partnered with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory Lab (NREL), University of Arizona and Colorado State University.

NREL and other research institutions are testing the merits of agrivoltaics in about 20 locations across the country with projects in the planning stages or underway in Oregon, Arizona and California, among others. “What we try to do is design projects to meet local needs and adapt to local conditions,” said Jordan Macknick, lead energy water and analyst for NREL.

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At this juncture, NREL’s goal is to move agrivoltaics out of the lab and into farm settings. Traditionally, farming and solar panels were considered incompatible. When renewable energy companies leased or purchased land from farmers they removed the topsoil, taking the land out of agricultural production.

Agrivoltaics refrains from removing the topsoil. Instead of packed earth or gravel, a farmer has the option to grow native plants or to plant shade-tolerant crops like tomatoes, cucumbers and squash.

One of the challenges of agrivoltaics is a matter of finding the sweet spot between shade and sun. Placement of the panels is critical, set far enough apart to allow plants to flourish without substantial cuts in energy production. Too much shade will impede photosynthesis. On the other hand, excess heat hampers the performance of solar panels, reducing their ability to produce power.

According to Macknick, the combination of the panels and vegetation can improve productivity because the shadows cast by solar panels and the groundcover work together to create a favorable microclimate. “Under the solar panels you have better moisture retention. What we’re finding is slightly cooler temperatures during the day and slightly warmer temperatures at night.”

Solar cell panels installed over paddy fields in Kamisu City, Ibaraki Pref., Japan. (Photo courtesy Σ64 / Creative Commons License)

A recent paper published in the journal PLOS One offered some tantalizing details. In May 2015, researchers at Oregon State University, in Corvallis, installed microclimate research stations beside solar panels with and without vegetation underneath. The instrumentation gathered data on the ambient temperature, humidity and soil moisture. Over the course of the summer, data revealed the soil under the solar panels with vegetation had higher moisture content. Moreover, the plant volume had doubled in size and yielded greater nutritional value in comparison to un-shaded plants in the surrounding area.

“Under this configuration if you can produce more crops with less water, who doesn’t want to see that,” said Macknick.

However not every farm is suitable for agrivoltaics. Installing solar panels may be cost prohibitive, for example, in remote areas with ample farmland and an abundant water supply.

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In California, exploring agrivoltaics will require striking a balance between the competing interests of farmland conservation and energy production. Legislation SB100, places California on the road to a 100 percent low-carbon, renewable energy future by 2045. How the state plans to meet this targeted goal remains an open question.

One potential roadblock for agrivoltaics is the Williamson Act of 1965, a statute designed to prevent the leapfrog development of farmland. The law enables local governments to enter into contracts with farmers to keep the land in agricultural production or open space.

Perhaps because of it, California’s farm counties ar slow to change. The Division of Land Resource reports 15,776 acres of farmland converted from agricultural production to solar power between 2014-2016. During that time frame the total number of acres in agricultural production dipped slightly from 31,386,872 to 31,351,190 acres.

Meanwhile, Komineck is blazing a path for his family farm with the help of solar technology.