Farms and Fish: a necessary friendship
Talk to almost any farm kid in Washington state and they have a story to share about catching fish in the nearby farm stream, public river or pasture lake. Many farms throughout the state have bodies of water nearby or running through their property. In most cases it’s why their ancestors settled where they did. In order to thrive, farms need access to fertile land and necessary water supplies (via rainfall, wells, or surface water bodies). Many farms were settled along streams, spring-fed lakes, and valleys because of their proximity to surface water sources. This made water available for the household, livestock and crops. Irrigation from surface water has been used for centuries in America by both Indigenous People of North America and European migrants to grow crops. Farming next to surface water is not a new concept, and the responsibility that comes with this locale is commonly understood. Farm families have stewarded the understanding that they share the water with fish, and they have co-existed for generations. Farms need water and so do fish…it’s a necessary relationship, even friendship that exists between the two.
Today, farmers are using a variety of tools to improve their relationship with fish. Reducing soil erosion helps everyone. Farmers don’t like to lose their precious topsoil, and they use various tillage practices, cover crops, and crop rotations to minimize loss. Farmers also experiment with new crops, such as millet, and new technologies, such as AI and robotics, to reduce inputs and improve their practices that ultimately protect water quality and fish.
Ultimately, vast and diverse agricultural cropland is the best neighbor to surface water compared to other uses. Homes, subdivisions, commercial spaces and other uses tend to have harsher effects on water bodies. Aspects like septic systems, parking lots and roadways add heat and potential pollution to the water. Compare that to large fields of potatoes, apples or grapes that naturally keep the surrounding area cooler with their green foliage and plant cover. Minimal traffic in the fields also keep the area more protected comparatively. Farmers are experts at keeping their farming practices localized and within their property lines. They are experts at using irrigation wisely, and they are constantly improving their methods to efficiently deliver moisture to specific areas within the fields rather than simply broadcast watering. Some crops such as grapes and apples are able to use drip irrigation systems that reduce evaporation and efficiently deliver water to specific plants and trees. In fact, the Washington wine industry has implemented an industry-wide Sustainable WA program that focuses on science-based practices developed for local conditions, and leads to “watershed protection, soil health, low input farming, employee and community stewardship and climate resiliency1.” Washington potato farmers are also leading the way in protecting water. Through new irrigation equipment and technology, they are using less water than ever before. They are “preventing overwatering & underwatering to ensure crops receive the optimal amount of water2.”
Protecting surface water bodies is an ultimate must for farmers…they need water, as do the fish. The delicate relationship between these two has been balanced for generations. Farmers continue to protect their land using the most science-based, reasonable and holistic approaches. Through that process, the fish are inherently benefitting from their farm neighbors. Farms are better friends to fish than any other use of the land, and farmers take that responsibility seriously.