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Saving Water by Changing Crops

Christmas Tree Farm snowy hill

Federal money to help communities recover from the COVID-19 pandemic is helping to turn alfalfa into Christmas trees and reducing water use.

“I’ve always had the dream of owning a Christmas tree farm,” Jaeyme Brandon told a media partnership called the Great Salt Lake Collaborative, which is a solutions journalism initiative focused on water preservation.

Brandon and her husband, Bryan, are using a $49,000 grant to transform their land in Tremonton, Utah. The Brandons quit watering the alfalfa crop after they purchased the land last year. Their new future will include Christmas trees and flowers for the project they call, “Once Upon a Christmas Tree Farm.”

While they wanted that holiday theme for the future, they also wanted to conserve water. That is something producers across the country have been looking at due to drought-induced water scarcity in various communities.

Here is how federal pandemic recovery dollars could help producers like the Brandons transform operations to make a more sustainable living off their farmland.

The state has the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food’s Agricultural Water Optimization Program. A task force formed in 2018 to identify challenges to Utah’s water supply. Part of the task force’s responsibility was to address water use by food producers.

“The task force identified obstacles and constraints to optimization and recommended ways to improve the quantification of agricultural water use,” according to the Agricultural Water Optimization Task Force’s statement of purpose.

Utah has given out $65 million for projects, like the one the Brandons are doing, since 2020. State and federal American Rescue Plan tax dollars fund Utah’s water optimization program. $200 million more is expected for future projects.

Farmers and ranchers can use the money for major equipment overhauls to reduce water use, as well as to replace flood irrigation systems, piping canals or a switch to other crops. For the Brandons, alfalfa crops required more irrigation than Christmas trees.

Utah’s water supply has received increasingly more attention. The Great Salt Lake fell to its lowest recorded level last year and has not recovered to its historical average size.

The state’s water optimization program, though, can’t yet report how much of a difference it is making. The Salt Lake Tribune found that the program isn’t yet letting the public know how its 332 funded projects have changed water demands of the Great Salt Lake.


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