Nebraska farmers working with leading environmental group to improve water efficiency.

Farmers and environmental groups are frequently at odds with each other and don’t always see eye to eye.

But that is changing in Nebraska as The Nature Conservancy is working in partnership with farmers to improve irrigation efficiency and overall conservation that extends well beyond the state’s borders.

“Unfortunately, farmers are frequently framed as villains when it comes to stewardship,” said Mace Hack, Nebraska state director for The Nature Conservancy.

“We see our role as catalyzing that innovation by engaging directly with farmers, who we see as important solution providers.”

The Nature Conservancy has redoubled its outreach to Nebraska farmers, supported in part by a wide range of agribusiness, corporate and nonprofit entities. An overarching goal of the organization is to reduce the level of nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus entering the Mississippi River system and eventually the Gulf of Mexico. Runoff from irrigation of agricultural land is seen as a significant source of these nutrients, so it makes sense to help farmers implement practices that improve irrigation efficiency.

Jacob Fritton, Project Lead for the Water and Agriculture Program with The Nature Conservancy, coordinates the effort. “We wanted to evaluate the water savings potential of irrigation technologies at both the field scale and the local watershed level,” Fritton said. “We provide farmers with a variety of technology tools and help them understand how to use them, interpret the data and leverage those tools and information.”

The first initiative was the Western Nebraska Irrigation Project which involved 11 farmers and 8,000 total acres. In just three years, the farmers combined to save more than 124 million gallons of water, without sacrificing yields. The Nature Conservancy is now working in the Central Platte area.

While reducing the amount of water used is a priority for farmers, Fritton noted that farmers were even more interested in reducing energy costs to run their pivots and the labor savings gained from remote control of their irrigation systems.

“If we want to accomplish our goals in conservation, it’s in our best interest to work in partnership with producers,” Fritton said. “We don’t necessarily need to have the same motivations for why we do what we do, but if we can identify practices that make sense to farmers—practices that also have a conservation outcome—that’s a win-win for everyone.”

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