Innovative farmers ‘harvest’ water to boost production

Coen Farm created shallow ditches called swales to capture millions of gallons of snowmelt each spring

This winter, you might want to harvest something a little different on your farm — water.

“Our farm harvests 40 years of water in two weeks just from snowmelt,” said Takota Coen, who farms near Ferintosh with his parents.

“We live in one of the only places in the world where you can actually increase your precipitation just by putting up a snow fence or building shelterbelts. All those things can drastically increase the amount of water on your property, which is going to increase the effectiveness of your operation.”

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On Coen Farm, annual rainfall runs anywhere between two inches and two feet, with roughly the same amount of snowfall. That amount of moisture wasn’t enough to sustain the land, or the family — three of their wells had gone dry by the time the Coens decided to start actively managing water on their land about five years ago.

“The limiting factor on our property was absolutely water,” Coen said during a Rural Routes to Climate Solutions webinar last month. “It doesn’t matter how good your topsoils are if you don’t have enough moisture. You’re not going to grow anything.”

So the family started exploring permaculture principles to make the most of what little moisture they did get.

“If we’ve got a damaged water cycle — if on your property, water is the weak link — the goal is to fix it,” he said. “The way to do that is either by increasing infiltration, precipitation, condensation, or transpiration.”

He soon found that the easiest way was to mimic nature by enhancing wetlands, increasing soil carbon, reducing evaporation and run-off, planting trees, and harvesting snow.

The scene from a video on Coen Farm shows part of a 1.2-kilometre-long swale snaking across the property. The video — on the home page of www.coenfarm.ca — details how swales fit into the farm’s permaculture approach to farming.
photo: From Coen farm video

In fact, snowfall is the primary source of water on their operation nowadays. Every year, roughly 10 million gallons of water in the form of spring run-off travels through the property, and they’ve managed to capture it through a series of interconnected dams, swales, and wetlands.

“What we decided to do was basically channel our inner beaver and create a bunch of dams across the property,” he said.

“We hold basically a million and a half gallons of water behind the dam, and later on, we’re able to open the culvert and flood it out into a swale just by having them at the right elevation.”

Swales for snow run-off

Permaculture practices are employed on Coen Farm, which raises and direct markets grass-fed beef, Berkshire pork and free-range eggs. Swales — which Coen describes as just “a wetland on contour” — have been used to raise the water table, provide water for irrigation, and watering cattle in their rotational grazing system.

Swales are essentially shallow ditches that catch and hold water until it can absorb into the ground.

“Its function is to slow, spread, and sink water into the ground, just like a wetland,” said Coen. “The way that we do that is basically by excavating material to build a wetland of sorts so that any overland flow falls in this ditch and infiltrates into the ground.”

As a result, the family can capture very large amounts of water.

“Based on the estimates we’ve done by measuring surface area and volume calculations, we estimate that we harvest about 10 million gallons of water every spring run-off,” he said.

“To put that into perspective, our farm only uses 250,000 gallons of water. We’re infiltrating 40 years’ worth of water in two weeks.”

And the impacts on their operation have been significant so far.

“After infiltrating this water into the ground for five years, we’re starting to see our wells come back into production,” he said, adding that their neighbours’ wells have also become more productive.

“We’re seeing improved production in pastures, in tree growth, in our wells.”

Two years ago, their county saw some of the worst flooding in 30 years, followed the year after by the worst drought in 30 years. But the Coens didn’t notice any impacts on their land.

“Our wetlands were able to buffer that flow of water — slow it down, spread it out, and sink it into the ground. And in the drought, we could see how much more production we had below any areas where we were able to infiltrate water.”

But despite the benefits that Coen has seen on his own operation, swales aren’t right for everybody, so before you take the plunge, determine if they’re the right option for your farm.

“Where swales come in really handy is when you’re dealing with water run-off from snowmelt,” he said.

“For the most part, if you’re dealing with run-off from rainfall, the cheapest and most effective way to store it is through improving your soil health.”

About the author

Reporter

Jennifer Blair

Jennifer Blair is a Red Deer-based reporter with a post-secondary education in professional writing and nearly 10 years of experience in corporate communications, policy development, and journalism. She's spent half of her career telling stories about an industry she loves for an audience she admires--the farmers who work every day to build a better agriculture industry in Alberta.

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