Fire and Water: Managing Complex Tradeoffs to Support Agriculture and Sustainability

Farm Foundation’s Round Table program gathered in Boise, Idaho, June 8-10, to explore issues facing the western parts of the United States, namely fire and water. More universal sustainability aspects affecting the entire food chain were also discussed.

Round Table is an invitation-only group of Fellows who convene twice per year to discuss important trends and issues in an off-the-record gathering.

A few key themes emerged, with speakers and participants discussing the challenges as well as pathways to possible solutions.

Fire Management

Western states continue to face ongoing challenges with managing fires. Increasingly other parts of the US are experiencing fires too, whether on public lands or farms. Speakers highlighted the complexities and approaches to integrated fire management. To address this challenge, building trust and nurturing relationships between ranchers and the Bureau of Land Management staff (and potentially staff from other federal and state agencies) is critical to success. Speakers highlighted the importance of these local relationships in working together to proactively manage fire risks and prescribed burns.

Water Management

Several sessions covered the many complexities of water for food and agriculture, from too little water to too much water, and the levers for managing these. Different structures for managing water rights were highlighted, with examples from Idaho as well as how other states are looking at the future of water management. Speakers highlighted the need for better public understanding of water rights, the work that goes into managing water supplies, as well as opportunities for a greater mutual understanding of what the tradeoffs are, particularly as communities develop. Specifically, as population growth continues to expand in Idaho, panelists highlighted the need for all parties, especially those with differing interests and perspectives, to come to the table with an attitude of mutual respect, openness to listening and learning, and a desire to work together on solutions, even when difficult tradeoffs must be considered.

Supply Chain Sustainability

Issues highlighted by food processors and retailers showcased ongoing commitments for managing resources, including water, in supply chains. Challenges addressed included the interactions between consumer demand, digital infrastructure at the farm-level, and opportunities throughout the supply chain, including, for example the benefits and implications of making tweaks like changing packaging materials.

Risks Affecting Farmers

Farmers spoke about some of their challenges and innovations for managing their tight resources, including technology solutions, but stated technology alone is not enough. The financial risks that farmers face continues to be a barrier for beginning and younger farmers, especially as their rural communities grow and new job opportunities arise.

Collaborating for Solutions

In general, raising more widespread awareness of the challenges, especially for water, across the supply chain and wider society is of key importance when looking at U.S. agriculture; speakers emphasized these issues should not be thought of merely as “Western problems,” but issues that affect global supply chains and the future of U.S. agriculture.  

Round Table Fellows take the insights gathered at the meeting back to their own organizations to integrate into their operations. Farm Foundation also continually hones the ideas, advancing them from the idea generation phase towards accelerating practical solutions for agriculture—the Farm Foundation “think tank” into the “do tank” model. Reach out if you would like to collaborate for solutions as we work to build and maintain resilience in the food and agriculture system and the resources we use.

Share This Article