In the Water-Starved West, Can Ancient Stewardship Practices Save the Soil?
A century of agriculture is threatening ancient aquifers in Oregon’s high desert. And the Indigenous farming practices that might heal the earth are being squeezed out.
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Driving east along U.S. Highway 20, barren hills intersect the horizon even as they seem to stay a certain distance away, no matter how long you keep driving. This far northwestern corner of the Great Basin is a naturally arid region, sheltered from Pacific storms by the Cascade Mountains that run along Oregon’s center. Still, for the last century, the area has been home to intense, industrial agriculture.
Compared to Oregon’s edenic Willamette Valley to the west, or hundred-thousand–head cattle operations in the state’s eastern flank, central Oregon has relatively small agricultural outputs — and yet the region’s farms have an outsized impact on local water budgets. After decades of single-crop farming —mostly feed crops like alfalfa that are exported—the landscape has been rendered a gray-beige smudge by dust carried in the stale wind.
Because of these crops’ high water needs, groundwater is being extracted faster than it can be replenished. Recently, state agencies carbon-dated agricultural well water and found that it was 8,000 years old. The water being used to grow crops in the desert is glacial melt from the end of the Ice Age. Tapping those aquifers would mark an irreversible point of departure. It would take another Ice Age for those underground basins to be replenished.
Some 10,000 years ago, the ice began to retreat. People came. The Wasco, Warm Springs, and Paiute communities flourished here for millennia, following elk, gathering berries. It wasn’t until colonial settlement that the land began to feel squeezed for resources. Now, some Indigenous farmers are asking whether there’s a future for food-growing agriculturists in a watershed on the brink of running dry.
“It was like that everywhere here when we started,” Spring Alaska Schreiner says, gesturing to a lone patch of crisped invasive grass near her property line. “A white man’s problem,” she sighs as she points at the last of the fallow earth, “and now a Native woman’s here to fix it.”
Four years ago, Schreiner, who is Inupiaq from the Kingukmuit Clan, bought a few acres in Deschutes County, Oregon, twenty minutes outside of Bend, with the intention of using Indigenous stewardship techniques to regenerate the land. She called it Sakari Farm.
In its short tenure, Sakari has become a stronghold of the community. Schreiner brings youth out from the neighboring Warm Springs Tribe, on whose ancestral territory the farm is located. Kids from the tribe pick their own plant medicines and prepare them as teas to sell. Beyond what is used to make the hot sauces and other products sold for profit in the farm store, almost all of the food that they grow is sent to the tribe through grant-funded food security programs. It has been such a successful venture that the Oregon Food Bank purchased a walk-in cooler for the farm to store their produce on the reservation.
When the water runs out, she’ll accept that the vision has ended. She’ll move on.
Nevertheless, when I ask Schreiner about her future plans for the burgeoning farm, she doesn’t miss a beat.
“I think it’s going to end.”
I traveled to Sakari this August expecting to write about the resilience of the Hopi-style dryland farming I knew the farm had implemented earlier that summer. Schreiner laughs when she tells me nothing took. For her, it’s still research: “You might fail. Then you stop and you move on.”
Schreiner thinks the farm will have five years left, if they’re lucky. When the water runs out, she’ll accept that the vision has ended. She’ll move on.
Healthy soil has an intoxicating, musty smell. It comes from geosmin, a compound produced by microbes in nutrient-rich topsoil. If you took a deep breath upon plunging your hands into the dark earth, the geosmin-rich M. vaccae microbes you would inhale would ramp up the production of serotonin and norepinephrine in your brain, boosting your mood and grounding your calm. In clinical trials, these microbes have been shown to successfully treat anxiety disorders and PTSD. The soil beneath us, when we tend it, tends us back.
But 75 billion tons of soil are lost every year, according to a 2019 intergovernmental report on biodiversity. Without the deep roots of diverse, functioning ecosystems, monocropped plots are vulnerable to erosion from strong rain and the plodding feet of livestock—even a light wind on a dry summer day can cause earth to turn airborne.
“It’s hard to comprehend,” Brooke Hayes, a PhD student researching soil health at the University of Victoria says. “It works out to ten tons [of soil lost] per person per year. That’s 20 pounds a meal.” A week’s worth of meals costs several bathtubs’ worth of soil.
Additionally, industrial agriculture’s reliance on chemicals reduces soil’s organic matter and can limit the absorptive capacity of farmlands, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Like the crust of a shriveled kitchen sponge that should have been tossed out months ago, intensively-farmed soil loses the ability to capture water from irrigation and storms. The tremendous pace of this attrition means that, under business-as-usual practices, some soil scientists have predicted we may only have 60 harvests left. Then, there will be no arable soil left to plant into.
This dusty, hungry vision of the future is, of course, not an inevitability. Regenerative agricultural practices like those that Indigenous peoples have been practicing for millennia could prevent the worst outcomes for food and water scarcity. Even a one-percent increase in organic matter in soil can result in 20,000 more gallons of soil-water-content per acre. Extrapolated out to a national scale, a one-percent increase in organic matter in all of America’s croplands would let those lands “store the amount of water that flows over Niagara Falls in 150 days,” according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.
And practices like companion planting, stewarding the same seed stock from one generation to the next, and working alongside the seasons—practices that Sakari, and many other small and Indigenous farmers have employed for generations—can encourage microbial growth in the soil and lead to more resilient and productive crops.
“When we keep the soil intact, we allow diverse habitats to form underground. Every time we disturb the soil, we destroy those habitats and kill those organisms that can cycle nutrients and provide a protective layer against disease-carrying organisms,” says Hayes.
Indigenous farming practices can be so low-impact that settler cultures often don’t even recognize them as farming, although the intentional cultivation of plant communities has likely occurred across most of North America (research indicates that areas now read as wilderness were, in fact, food forests stewarded by Indigenous groups before they were dispossessed from their lands). Intercropping, agroforestry, and controlled burning are all practices that have been used continuously for millennia in some regions of the Americas.
Today, such low-intensity practices wouldn’t meet the land-use thresholds necessary for farmers in Deschutes County to keep their rights to agricultural water use. Like much of the aridifying west, Deschutes County is in a drought. A few days before I had arrived at the farm, the water had been shut off. For the rest of the summer, Sakari’s water will be shut off biweekly. If they’re lucky, this means they’ll receive half of the water they were allocated by the Tumalo Irrigation District. The basin’s water is still managed using a century-old, first-come-first-serve allocation system that was set up to incentivize early colonial settlement in the early 1900s. Today, that means that newer water users like Sakari Farms are the first to have their water rights cut during drought years.
“What do you think,” Schreiner asks her husband Sam as he walks out of the storeroom, “do we maybe have five years left?”
He looks at her with a smile and says, “Oh, all it would take is one bad year.”
The impacts of colonial land management and global warming have changed this landscape. It is now a drier, harder place. The policies that determine whether farms flourish or fail do not adequately cushion farmers working within the desert’s natural limits. “The drought is just the beginning of whatever is in the next cycle for this place,” Schreiner says. It’s not a conventional climate “solution,” nor is it the one I pitched to write about, but there it is: In the face of insurmountable change, what more can anyone do but cultivate a disposition of gratitude and abundance for all that is still going to fruit and flower?
For peoples whose land has already been the site of life-altering settlement and extraction and collapse for generations, what farmers like Schreiner are faced with now is not new. As the sixth IPCC report released in early 2022 stated, these scales of environmental collapse are the direct result of centuries of colonialism. But, much like the ancient seeds that Indigenous peoples have cultivated across generations, so too have they sustained themselves through networks of care, resistance and strength over many, many struggles. The desertification of America’s farmland is not the first.
In these contexts, Schreiner’s acceptance that this abundance might be fleeting reads as faintly revolutionary. It is possible to thrive here, for the time being. When she imagines her future beyond the inevitable last growing season, Spring says she could see herself switching tracks and working on film projects or continuing her Native women’s gatherings.
“For food security to really be possible here, there needs to be some form of collapse first. Things need to fall apart—the agricultural system or the economic system—in order to make space for these good, natural systems,” Spring told me.
Until then, the solution to the crisping desert and food scarcity challenges likely coming for this landscape is, it seems, to stay grounded in the scope of what remains possible—and to then harvest all the sweetness left in that space, even as the opportunity to do so comes to a close.
For now, Sakari Farms is an oasis. Here, the high desert’s classic juniper-sage musk is honeyed by the scent of sweetgrass—and the geosmin scent of fertile earth is there, too, in the low notes. Again and again, over the course of our interview, I am derailed from the track of my questions by Schreiner’s description of increasingly lavish meals: Hopi blue corn crackers with smoked black bean hummus and fire-roasted poblanos, sprinkled with herb-infused smoked salts made onsite. She shows me blueberry sweetgrass hot sauce in a slender glass jar.
“Indian spinach,” Schreiner says, lifting her chin to a bushy plant by the door, beyond which she will show me drying racks full of curved squash blossoms and fiery azafran petals, with waist-high bags of dried lavender stems and yarrow heads under the windows. Shelves are full teetering jars of dried maize, freeze-dried blueberries, and canned salmon from Schreiner’s native Alaska, all products gifted from, or traded with, other Indigeous farmers connected with Sakari through the Indigenous Seed Keepers Network and the Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance.
When she points to the wily spinach plant, I hear the edge of an offer in her voice. I pinch off a sword-shaped leaf with my fingernails. In the hesitant moment between lifting my hand and opening my mouth, our eyes lock and Schreiner’s face erupts into one of her quick grins. Between my teeth, the leaf’s bite is sharp and immediate.