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Sustainable agriculture key to water conservation in U.S.bread basket, world

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Today, continued conversation with Julene Bair, author of "The Ogallala Road". Last time out, we talked about her personal journey, and how water conservation came to be an important issue for her.

There are many ways in which the government supports and regulates the growing of grains that create unsustainable demand for water, Julene says. "There's an easy fix. Put pressure on legislators." While the move that came with the 2014 Farm Bill, from direct payments to crop insurance, is largely viewed as positive, Bair believes there is more work to be done. "The farm program subsidizes the thirstiest crops, like corn and soy. Also, they insure for similar yields in various areas." In other words, no thought is given to the expected amount of rainfall in a given area, and how that might affect yield. Farmers in Bair's beloved Kansas high plains are expected to do as well as farmers in wetter, nearby areas like Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa. "Basically, the government underwrites the depletion of the Ogallala aquifer," Julene says.

Once corn is produced, its disposition is another problem. Bair says neither the production of ethanol, with its required fuel inputs, nor the feeding of cattle, with protein output only one-twentieth of input, are efficient uses of farm products. "These are other political issues. But ultimately, the water belongs to us."

Worldwide, smallholder farms are working to conserve resources and increase yields, according to a report by Food Tank. Soil health, choice of crops, and water conservation are related issues looked at in the report. Important points from that report:

● "Smallholder farmers utilize farming practices that preserve biodiversity—not just for nutrition and taste—but also because cultivating a wide variety of species helps insulate farmers against risk of plant disease, and crop diversity promotes soil health and increases yields.

● Diversified and indigenous crops are typically more resilient to climate change and extreme weather conditions.

● The use of organic fertilizers by family farms has been proven to be effective in reducing soil degradation.

● Smallholder farmers typically use innovative technologies to conserve resources. Drip irrigation methods used in Benin, for example, can save between 30 and 60 percent more water than conventional methods."

Locally, the mitigation of combined sewage overflows is by far the most important water conservation issue. Read more about this, national farm policy, or about the book, "The Ogallala Road", by reading from the "suggested by the author" list below.

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