Zach Hauser never really had any doubt that he would grow up to be a farmer. His father and grandfather started growing corn in central Arizona's Verde Valley in the 1960s. He grew up working on the land – helping plant, irrigate and harvest – and learned at an early age the values that guided his family's work.
"We believe in growing crops and feeding people," Zach says. "And we believe in conserving water."
That ethic guides how Zach and his family steward their 600-acre farm, which runs along the Verde River, one of the last, longest perennial streams in the state.
Camp Verde, the community where the farm is located, receives just nine to 11 inches of rainfall per year, on average. Hauser & Hauser Farms depends heavily on water diverted from the Verde to irrigate crops of sweet corn, alfalfa, watermelon and carrots.
With the Verde's water flows increasingly threatened by drought and development, Zach has embraced conservation as the key to protecting his family's livelihood.
Working closely with The Nature Conservancy (TNC), Hauser & Hauser Farms has reduced its water use with new technology that has improved the efficiency of their irrigation system. The family replaced a broken headgate in their main irrigation ditch with a new automated gate that can be opened and closed remotely. This allows Zach to regulate flows using an app on his cell phone, eliminating waste of water.
Zach and his family have begun converting from flood irrigation to drip irrigation, which can be twice as efficient. "We're putting water directly where the crop needs it. We're not running water off the field like we do when we're flooding."
The family also chose to place parts of the farm into permanent conservation easement, to ensure it will not be developed or subdivided for residential property - a water-saving move that will help the river in perpetuity.
"The river is important because it is our only source of water. It's the lifeblood of this place," says Zach.
"That's why we're so proactive in these water efficiency projects. There are things that we can do as farmers to protect these rivers and keep them flowing."
The Walton Family Foundation is supporting water conservation initiatives on the Verde River as part of its efforts to protect water supply throughout the Colorado River Basin .
The foundation is working with farmers, businesses and conservation groups to restore riparian habitat and develop market-based solutions to improve water flow on the Verde, a critical tributary of the Colorado River that provides about 40% of Phoenix's surface water supply.
In Camp Verde, the Hauser family is best known for its sweet corn. The family's popular corn stand bustles with customers from mid-summer through early fall
In their ongoing efforts to innovate and conserve, Zach and his family have begun testing the potential economic opportunity and environmental benefits of converting some of their fields from corn to barley .
Because corn grows best when the Verde River's flows are lowest – in the dry months of June and July – "it requires a lot of irrigation and uses a lot of water," Zach says.
Barley, by contrast, is planted in late January and benefits from winter and spring rains, requiring minimal irrigation through May.
"We're not irrigating the barley crop at all during June and July because we're harvesting it at that point," Zach says. "The goal is to keep more water in the river in June and July."
The Hausers planted 14 acres to barley in 2016 and 140 acres in 2017.
The key to economic success is to grow high-quality malting barley to be used in brewing beer. To help establish a market for barley in Arizona, TNC and other water conservationists have backed the opening of a malting plant to process the barley grown in the Verde Valley.
The potential for water savings in crop conversion could reach several hundred millions of gallons a year, depending how much land gets sowed to barley instead of corn.
"Our main focus is to keep the river flowing, because as long as the river has water in it then we can keep making a living and keep farming," says Zach, who has two children he hopes will one day farm themselves.
"In the grand scheme of things, we're just a small, small water user on a humongous system. But every drop counts. We're trying to make as big a difference as we can."