RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Drought is a fact of life in parts of the Western U.S. But persistent drought conditions are forcing a lot of farmers and ranchers to adapt. Cattle are being shipped to auction early because ranchers can't afford to feed them. Farmers are letting their fields go fallow because there isn't water to irrigate crops. And there are predictions that this could be the new norm.
NPR's Kirk Siegler has the story of one fifth generation farmer in Nevada.
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KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Let me see if I can get around this truck.
Take a drive around the perimeter of Colby Frey's farm and it's clear you're kind of on an island, one oasis of green surrounded by a big dusty desert.
COLBY FREY: This place right here is one that got stripped. The water rights got stripped.
SIEGLER: Here, a neighbor's farm went under. The next property over, weeds have taken over an abandoned farmhouse.
FREY: You know, and it's just kind of sad 'cause it seems like it's kind of slowly creeping towards us.
SIEGLER: Every farm and ranch around here is - or was - entirely dependent on water that comes from snow melt in the Sierra Nevada. So a few years back, during another drought, Frey got to thinking. The only way to survive was to diversify, find crops that didn't need as much water. Colby hops out of his truck to show off what the family calls its lab.
FREY: This vineyard right over here was actually our first test vineyard, as an experiment.
SIEGLER: The idea came from the original farmhouse just across the field. It always had a grapevine next to it that yielded pounds of fruit every summer. And grapes take a lot less water than Frey's primary crop, alfalfa.
FREY: If we could only use 10 percent of the water, we could essentially take one acre of water rights and plant 10 acres of vines.
SIEGLER: And they did and it's becoming profitable. Frey says their diversifying into a high-yield specialty crop like grapes should help them coast through a lean water year like this. Now make no mistake, alfalfa is still their main business. It's what Northern Nevada was basically built on. But like other farmers in this area, the Freys are also beginning to look at lower-water grain alternatives like sorghum and a desert grain that comes from Ethiopia called teff. The local dairy cows seem to like these.
FREY: We have to adapt to survive. We've been in Nevada for a long time and if we don't adapt, then we won't survive. And there's been several other families that didn't make it because they didn't change the ways that they did things.
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KELLY REDMOND: One of the functions of droughts - I mean not like its intended or anything - is to kind of re-jigger our thinking about water and its value and what we do with it.
SIEGLER: Kelly Redmond studies farming in Nevada's Great Basin at the Reno-based Desert Research Institute, a federal climate lab.
REDMOND: How we buffer ourselves and improve our resiliency against this happening again, because there's some thought that we might see this a little bit more often in the future.
SIEGLER: This latest drought has renewed questions about the viability of farming in arid places like this, especially since farmers are competing with thirsty cities for a shrinking supply of stored water. But Redmond is an optimist.
REDMOND: My sort of overall impression is it will be viable because we're clever enough to make it viable.
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SIEGLER: Back at Colby Frey's place, a team of six workers is bottling wine that's headed to stores and restaurants in nearby Reno. Frey says he's hoping to show some of his skeptical neighbors that grapes can be a profitable side business. But he says he can't blame some families for selling off their land and shutting down, especially in devastating years like this. He's thought of it too.
FREY: We'd probably make five times more money. We wouldn't have to worry about the water or the droughts or anything like that. And we could live the rest of our lives, but that's not what we want to do.
SIEGLER: Frey says farming is what his family does. His great-great grandfather was one of this state's first farmers. And he plans on handing the farm over to his kids one day.
Kirk Siegler, NPR News.
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MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.
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