On a cold and dry December Friday, Zach Hauser is getting ready for a weekend of hunting. The next morning at about 4 a.m., he and a handful of friends will make a nearly three-hour uphill trek into the Arizona woods. There they will tread quietly looking for elk and whitetail deer. On occasion, they come across a mountain lion.
They will probably return late the same night, but "if we get something, we might stay the night and sleep on the ground," Hauser says. "It's better to carry it back in the morning."
Other weekends Hauser might go snowboarding up in Flagstaff or visit his grandmother in Montana. December through mid-January is one of the few periods during the year when Hauser can leave the land he has known as home his whole life.
By late January it's time to start getting back to the seven-day workweek. That's when it's time to plant the wheat, which he tries to get into the ground just before the annual late winter rains.
"I'm always watching the weather then," Hauser explains. "If we get enough rain in January and February, we don't have to irrigate until March."
Hauser takes water seriously. Because his farm sits on dry land in central Arizona, Hauser relies on the Verde River, as do most residents of the small town of Camp Verde, about 90 miles (145 kilometers) north of Phoenix. His 600-acre family farm is one of the largest users of water in the area, and he treats conservation as a personal responsibility. (See "Ditch Boss Helps Keep Thirsty River Flowing.")
"The river holds the key to our future around here," he says. "Without it there probably wouldn't be any farming here at all."
Hauser never really thought of himself as an environmentalist. But simple pragmatism has led him to join the frontline effort to save the Verde, a river that supports 10 native species of fish, more than 90 species of mammals, and the highest avian density in recorded American history.
"I would rather be part of the solution than part of the problem," he says matter-of-factly.
Such a statement means a lot to Kim Schonek, a hydrologist who manages the Verde River program for the Nature Conservancy.
"He recognizes that the water is limited, so if we don't need it, we should leave it in the river," Schonek says.
Part of Hauser's interest in conservation is also a simple matter of survival. One of the Hauser farm's properties lies at the end of the Diamond S ditch that serves the area, meaning it's the last to receive water. If enough water doesn't make it that far, there's no irrigation and no farming. And in recent years, part of the Verde has gone bone dry.
As a result, Hauser plays an important role as a test subject for a new agreement that Schonek implemented with the Diamond S ditch last year. Local "ditch boss," or water manager, Frank Geminden worked with irrigators to use funds from the Change the Course campaign, of which National Geographic is a partner, to install sensors in the gate control box to monitor the water level in the ditch. An automatic motor now raises and lowers the gate to provide the optimum amount of water needed for farmers.
The use of this technology allowed Hauser and Geminden (and the Diamond S irrigators) to work with the Nature Conservancy and commit to diverting less water from the river. (See "Arizona Irrigators Share Water With Desert River.")
"If the end user is getting water, then the system is working," Schonek explains about Hauser's role as a litmus test for the project, which he says has been going well so far.
Schonek says keeping more unneeded water in the main channel of the Verde River, instead of in the Diamond S ditch, has been a boon to wildlife and improves recreational opportunities in the valley.
Long Farm Hours
Typically, it's just Hauser and two farmhands working the land, growing corn, hay, sweet corn, wheat, barley, and pumpkins. On occasion, Hauser's brother and father will pitch in and his mother and sister will help out with the irrigation.
Sometimes they get four-legged visitors, those same elk and whitetails Hauser hunts, showing up in his fields after dark. A couple of mountain lions have dropped by as well, as they have been known to do in Arizona. One was even recently spotted in a Phoenix suburb.
Hauser is the sixth generation of farmers in his family. Growing up in the Verde Valley, he knows he has become a rare breed. But rather than lament the passing of an American tradition, Hauser takes pride in his role in keeping it alive.
"I like being different," Hauser says. "I don't like being the same as everyone else."
That's despite the challenges family farmers face daily: the long hours, the small margins, and the insecurity about the year's crops.
Then there's the drought. For 14 years, dryness has gripped the Colorado River Basin.
"Destiny of the Land"
At only 25 years old, Hauser manages the largest family-run farm in the area, an impressive responsibility but also one that he seems to handle with the confidence of the seasoned farmer he is, one who has already been at it for years.
In the busy months of summer, Hauser gets up at 4 a.m. to tend the crops and his duties keep him working well into the night. There's the tilling, the planting, the tending, and the picking, and it seems like the equipment needs constant maintenance. Though the winter months are less hectic, there's no shortage of work preparing the land for the next season.
None of that bothers Hauser. In fact, for him every day is an opportunity to put food on his family's table as well as the tables of many other families he will never meet.
"It's what I live for," he says.
The Hausers have worked their 600-acre Verde Valley farm for 40 years and also manage a slightly smaller one in California. It's truly a family affair, with his parents and two brothers tilling the same land, though his father splits his time between the Arizona and California properties.
Hauser's wife gave birth to their first child this winter, and he fully expects that his son will become the seventh generation of Hausers to continue the family trade. His young son even has a name reminiscent of a traditional farm: Cylo, or Cy for short.
Hauser says he doesn't have much to complain about. He describes the long days as fulfilling and says he couldn't imagine doing anything else. The climate is temperate, and there's a lot of fresh air.
No, he says, there's not much he would change—unless it's the family buying all the property they work. Until this year, the Hausers leased the land they farmed, although they recently purchased just under 200 acres of the tract.
"If we owned it, then we would be here forever for sure," Hauser says, adding that his family's goal was "to control the destiny of the land."
There's another thing Hauser would like to improve, and it's one he is working on with Schonek and partners: He would like to use even less water.
Hauser talks a lot about saving and is constantly looking for ways to economize resources, especially time. That pursuit takes him annually to Tulane, California, for the World Ag Expo. That's where he found a GPS he installed on his tractors. When he talks about it, it's with excitement about how leveling his fields now takes a fraction of the time it once did and how he can map them down to the inch.
"I'm a big fan of technology," he says, "anything that makes us more efficient."
When it comes to saving water, it's really an ancient technology he's after, but one that is still cost-prohibitive.
Each parcel of land that makes up the Hauser farm has its own ditch-fed reservoir. From the reservoir, a manually opened gate lets a regulated flow down into narrow trenches called furrows that run alongside the fields. The flow can be further diverted into ever narrower furrows running across the fields that feed the plants at the soil level.
While Hauser says they have gotten more efficient with the water they do use, watering his crops above ground still wastes more than they need to. So Hauser and his family are looking into installing drip irrigation systems that would water the plants from below through perforated pipes. He estimates this could save one-third of what they currently use.
"When you're flood irrigating above the surface, you're having to run extra water just for evaporation and water going back into the ground," he explains.
Hauser isn't looking to save money on water because there's none to save, as payments are made based on the number of acres of land irrigated and not the amount of water used. There are, however, other advantages such as better crop yield and better land maintenance.
Hauser explains that watering the plants above ground leaves water for the sun to heat, which, in turn, heats the plants. "Scalding," Hauser calls it.
"Field irrigation just bakes the land," he says. "Everyone I know who uses drip irrigation, their crops are healthier and they have bigger yields."
Then there's the simple desire to conserve the precious resource, a concept not lost on someone so connected to his environment.
"We're trying to be as efficient as we can with the methods we have," Hauser says.
Drip, Drip, Drip
But Hauser is looking to change the methods. The problem is the initial expense: Hauser figures it would probably cost about $2,000 per acre to put in the necessary pipes for a drip irrigation system, and that doesn't even include the pump and filtration equipment.
"With the crops we grow, you would never be able to pay for it," he says. "You just don't make enough money to have that kind of expense."
That's not the end of the story, however. Citing the benefit to the river's ecosystem through saving water, Schonek says the Nature Conservancy hopes to raise the funds needed to switch Hauser's farm to drip irrigation within a few short years.
Hauser is clearly hopeful it will work out.
"You're always concerned about the future because there's no guarantees," he concludes. "I don't think a lot of people know what it's like to be a farmer and the challenges we face. But it's satisfying."
Help restore water to the Colorado River Basin by joining Change the Course, a project of National Geographic, Participant Media, and the Bonneville Environmental Foundation. Sign up online or text "River" to 77177.
Special thanks to Silk and Coca-Cola, Charter Sponsors for Change the Course. Additional funding generously provided by the Walton Family Foundation.