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Utah's farmers explore ways to be more water efficient

Corinne Utah farm
Posted at 4:00 PM, Jun 25, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-25 21:26:50-04

CORINNE, Utah — Joel Ferry reached down and picked up a handful of dirt in the middle of his corn field.

"Any rain we got yesterday? Look at that. It’s powder! Nothing!" he said as the dirt dissipated in the wind.

READ: How rain helps with short term fire danger, but not so much with drought

Ferry is a fifth-generation farmer in northern Utah. He's also in the state legislature, representing the Brigham City area and knows all-too-well the impact of Utah's drought emergency.

The heat is bringing in crops early. Cherries are already hitting, weeks earlier than expected. So are peaches. Corn might come in weeks earlier than anticipated.

Other crops are being slashed. On the Ferry farm, they did one crop of hay and called it good. Utah's Department of Agriculture & Food said some farmers have slashed crops and are selling livestock because feed is unavailable.

READ: Engineer explains how Utah water rights work during drought

The latest metrics provided by the state show that agriculture producers are having to get by with 75% less water than they normally see.

"We talk about 80% of the water being used statewide for agriculture? A lot of that water use is being used in our rural communities. That’s the life-blood of those communities," said Ferry.

As Utah's drought emergency continues, the state's largest water user is trying to figure out new ways to save the precious resource. Ferry is trying some of those conservation efforts out firsthand.

On Friday, he was working to get a canal piped. He's done about 10,000 feet so far but he believes it will give him long-term savings and use less water.

"You don’t have the leeching, you don’t have the loss, you don’t have the weeds and everything else consuming all that water," Ferry told FOX 13.

He's trying different methods of planting to use less water. Other farmers are experimenting with different ways to use sprinkler systems to avoid evaporation.

"I want to use less, but I want to use less — wisely," Ferry said. "I want to use it in a smart way that’s going to make it so I can maximize production, because we all need to eat."

But it costs money, and, to install and implement new technologies or new systems, a lot of money. Ferry said he was able to get some cost-matching federal grants for his canals.

WATCH: Utah farmers, ranchers try to survive drought

As a member of a working group set up by the Utah State Legislature to come up with new water policies geared toward conservation, Ferry is pushing his colleagues to consider funding some agriculture water-efficiency plans. He said policies also must recognize Utah's geographic differences.

"Things that are going to work for Box Elder County, Cache County, here in northern Utah are going to be different than things that are going to work for Washington County or Kane County or Iron County down in southern Utah," he said. "We have to be flexible as we look at this on a statewide level how we’re managing that, setting policy."

So far, the Utah State Legislature has set aside $280 million for water conservation efforts. But that's for the entire state and not just agriculture. Ferry said he would like to see more done specifically for farms and ranches.

"You look at the climate models, these droughts are expected to continue," he said, adding that one heavy winter isn't enough.

Lawmakers are looking at whether federal infrastructure or COVID-relief money can be used to make improvements.

"If we haven’t made the investment, spent the money and improved the systems we have? We’re going to be struggling again," he added.