Dryland Farming
in the Semi-Arid High Plains

By Steven Rosenzweig
Soil and Crop Sciences, Colorado State University
Photography by Douglas Gayeton

NEARLY 75 YEARS AGO, THE DUST BOWL offered farmers here a valuable lesson: if their tillage practices failed to leave the soil covered, it would be lost forever. Today, most farmers in this region still grow cycles of wheat and fallow… essentially resting their soil for an entire year after each harvest to give it time to collect enough rainwater to produce another crop. While this wheat-fallow rotation helps farmers keep wheat yields consistent from year to year, it also requires leaving the soil bare for up to 14 months at a time. That bare soil is subject to both wind and water erosion, and loses nearly 75% of its water storage to evaporation and weeds.

Lexicon of Sustainability worked with scientists at Colorado State University and farmers across Colorado and Nebraska to produce RESILIENT, an education initiative that documents the stories of dryland farmers abandoning tradition in favor of more regenerative farming practices. Much of their inspiration comes from observing the efficient water-uses strategy of native grasses growing in the shortgrass prairie. They’ve learned to work with less water while building healthier soils, and to mimic nature by incorporating extensive crop rotations that enhance biodiversity. They also plant cover crops to keep the soil covered and increase soil organic matter while applying no-till farming practices.

In a time of increasing climate uncertainty, RESILIENCE provides farmers with a model for responding to a region’s specific challenges with adaptive strategies to help them reach their production goals not just today, but for generations to come.

farmers learn from the land

WHILE THE BLUE GRAMA IS THE DOMINANT and most drought-adapted grass in the shortgrass prairie, its understory is mixed with cool season grasses that adapt to a wide range of climatic conditions. Meanwhile, up to 90% of the biomass here is belowground, like an iceberg, allowing it to sequester huge amounts of carbon. By understanding how nature creates resilience, dryland farmers can use same diversity primciple to grow more food and stay in business whilefarming in the most variable climate in the country.

How farmers make the most out of no rain

EASTERN COLORADO’S DRYLAND FARMERS never know when the next rain will come, so it’s important to grow a diversity of crops at different times of the year. In the High Plains, dryland farmers are constantly worried about drought. Instead of planting the region’s traditional wheat-fallow cropping sequence, farmers use more diverse crop rotations that break up weed and disease cycles, grow more food, make more money, sequester more carbon, and keep plants growing at different times of year to cope with the uncertainty of rain.

Dryland farmers in the high plains like John Heerman build healthy soil by using NO TILL practices and growing a DIVERSITY of plants, including COVER CROPS. While the typical wheat-fallow farming practices in this region result in one crop every two years, a new breed of dryland farmers experiments by growing a diverse mix of crops throughout the year. Instead of rotating between wheat and fallow, John incorporates cover crops into his rotation. They include kale, forage collards, grazing corn, cow peas, soybeans and vetch. When coupled with no-till practices, these farmers see benefits from a healthier soil ecosystem, one that captures and retains water, suppresses disease and pests, cycles nutrients, improves soil structure, and filters pollutants. Meanwhile, John’s neighbor tills his soil to control weeds, then leaves his soil bare for 14 months after each wheat harvest to recharge it’s store of water (absence of living plants in the soil means less for soil organisms to feed on).

In eastern Colorado, dryland farmers are introducing new practices that preserve top soil, conserve soil moisture, and build soil health. After each harvest, crop residue is left on the ground. It protects the soil from the erosive forces of wind and rain, and shades it from the sun. This blanket of crop residue is important; it can take hundreds of years to create a single inch of top soil. The residue also provides a natural buffer against the impact of raindrops and increases the total amount of water stored within a plant’s root zone. And with a no till system, corn is even planted directly into the crop residue, which provides nutrients while keeping soil exposure to a minimum.

We don’t really know in 50 years what this soil might be capable of,” Cole observes, “It’s a long healing process. Generations of tilled wheat-fallow degraded the soil, but that’s being reversed as no-till practices revolutionize dryland agriculture. Cole’s family is on the forefront of this change and they’re excited to seehow much the soil will improve over their lifetimes.

The high plains once grazed by migratory bison featured a diverse mix of perennial and annual plants. “When you have diversity in a cropping system,” Curt observes, “You keep the weeds and bugs off balance. I used to think these plants would compete but we’re finding now that they actually work in conjunction with each other. Some plants make nitrogen available and some plants make phosphorus available and some plants are better at retaining moisture. That diversity helps them all survive.

“To get the soil biology right, you have to have diversity above ground if you want diversity below ground. So, we have crop diversity, but the component that we’ve been missing is the livestock. it’s much more than just urine and feces. It’s the way their hooves interact with the soil and when they graze off a plant but don’t kill it, so the exudates are going out of the roots. Bison used to migrate in massive and dense herds, only eating the tops of their favorite plants as they went. By keeping our cattle at high densities and frequently moving them between fresh cover crop patches, they eat only a small amount of the total plant biomass. This allows the plants to regrow and benefit the soil, while also providing the cattle with a tasty and nutritious diet. All of these things stimulate the soil biology more than just the nitrogen and phosphorous that might be in the manure.”

Climate Change:
Challenges and Opportunities

THE WESTERN GREAT PLAINS HAVE AN AMAZING CLIMATE”, Nolan says. “It’s the part of the country that has the largest year-to-year and day-to-day changes of almost any other part of the country. It’s an area of natural extremes to begin with, and that’s even before you add the next ingredient, which is climate change in action.”

Farmers in the High Plains depend on rainfall that averages less than 16”per year. While the effects of climate change are difficult to measure in this region, Nolan notes, “Anything that causes warmer weather with possibly fewer and larger precipitation events and possibly quicker onset drought – will require different approaches to how [farmers] manage the biological resources in [their] soil.

“Agriculture can affect not only how they respond to the climate as it may be changing but also how the atmosphere’s composition of carbon may in fact change over time as well. Agricultural practices can influence both sides of the climate system.” These practices can include both no-till and and reducing fallow periods in crop rotations to sequester carbon.”

“I grew up in an agricultural area where the conversations that took place in the community were almost always weather and climate related,and that was the language I loved to hear.”

– Nolan Doesken

CSU Colorado Springs
State Climatologist
fo Colorado

Information Artworks

that explain the key principles of dryland agriculture

the film


About The Lexicon

THE LEXICON COLLABORATES with government agencies, universities, foundations, television networks, publishers, non-profits, community organizers and sustainability advocates from around the world. Our primary tool is language. Our award-winning multi-stakeholder approach blends data with aspirational stories of real people sharing sustainable solutions that drive behavior change.

By illuminating the meanings behind these powerful ideas, we help people pay closer attention to how they eat, what they buy, and where their responsibility begins for creating a healthier, safer food system.

It’s behavior change that works on a local and regional level to transform communities and shift the marketplace.

Join a bold, new online community for anyone who cares about building more resilient, inclusive food systems.

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Eligibility, Submission Terms and Conditions


A Greener Blue Global Storytelling Initiative is sponsored by The Lexicon, a US based 501(c)(3) public charity.


Storytellers will join A Greener Blue Storytelling Collective to create stories for the International Year of Artisanal Fisheries and Aquaculture with the FAO and its partner organizations. Members of the Collective will take part in a private online “Total Storytelling Lab” led by The Lexicon’s Douglas Gayeton. Upon completion of this online certificate program, members of the Collective will join seafood experts from around the globe in creating A Greener Blue Storytelling initiative.


Who can enter and how selections are made.

A Greener Blue is a global call to action that is open to individuals and teams from all over the world. Below is a non-exhaustive list of subjects the initiative targets.

  • Creatives and storytellers with a passion for food and the willingness to support small-scale fisherpeople and experts worldwide. This category includes, but is not exhausted in photographers, videomakers, illustrators, podcasters, and writers.
  • Food Activists working to change open sea fishing and aquaculture; 
  • Members of fishing and indigenous communities that support their communities, share their stories and protect their way of life;
  • Local and International NGOs work every day with actors across the whole value chain to create more sustainable seafood models.

To apply, prospective participants will need to fill out the form on the website, by filling out each part of it. Applications left incomplete or containing information that is not complete enough will receive a low score and have less chance of being admitted to the storytelling lab.

Nonprofit organizations, communities of fishers and fish farmers and companies that are seeking a closer partnership or special support can also apply by contacting hello@thelexicon.org and interacting with the members of our team.

Special attention will be given to the section of the form regarding the stories that the applicants want to tell and the reasons for participating. All proposals for stories regarding small-scale or artisanal fishers or aquaculturists, communities of artisanal fishers or aquaculturists, and workers in different steps of the seafood value chain will be considered.

Stories should show the important role that these figures play in building a more sustainable seafood system. To help with this narrative, the initiative has identified 10 principles that define a more sustainable seafood system. These can be viewed on the initiative’s website and they state:
Seafood is sustainable when:

  • it helps address climate change
  • it supports global ecosystems
  • it optimizes impact on resources and nutrient cycles.
  • it promotes a safe growing environment for safe food sources.
  • it advances animal welfare.
  • it enhances flavor and nutrition.
  • it builds resilience and self-sufficiency in local communities.
  • it prioritizes inclusion, equality, and fair treatment of workers.
  • it preserves legality and the quality and the story of the product throughout the value chain.
  • it creates opportunities along the whole value chain.

Proposed stories should show one or more of these principles in practice.

Applications are open from the 28th of June to the 15th of August 2022. There will be 50 selected applicants who will be granted access to The Lexicon’s Total Storytelling Lab. These 50 applicants will be asked to accept and sign a learning agreement and acceptance of participation document with which they agree to respect The Lexicon’s code of conduct.

The first part of the lab will take place online between August the 22nd and August the 26th and focus on training participants on the foundation of storytelling, supporting them to create a production plan, and aligning all of them around a shared vision.

Based on their motivation, quality of the story, geography, and participation in the online Lab, a selected group of participants will be gifted a GoPro camera offered to the program by GoPro For A Change. Participants who are selected to receive the GoPro camera will need to sign an acceptance and usage agreement.

The second part of the Storytelling Lab will consist of a production period in which each participant will be supported in the production of their own story. This period goes from August 26th to October 13th. Each participant will have the opportunity to access special mentorship from an international network of storytellers and seafood experts who will help them build their story. The Lexicon also provides editors, animators, and graphic designers to support participants with more technical skills.

The final deadline to submit the stories is the 14th of October. Participants will be able to both submit complete edited stories, or footage accompanied by a storyboard to be assembled by The Lexicon’s team.

All applicants who will exhibit conduct and behavior that is contrary to The Lexicon’s code of conduct will be automatically disqualified. This includes applicants proposing stories that openly discriminate against a social or ethnic group, advocate for a political group, incite violence against any group, or incite to commit crimes of any kind.

All submissions must be the entrant’s original work. Submissions must not infringe upon the trademark, copyright, moral rights, intellectual rights, or rights of privacy of any entity or person.

Participants will retain the copyrights to their work while also granting access to The Lexicon and the other partners of the initiative to share their contributions as part of A Greener Blue Global Storytelling Initiative.

If a potential selected applicant cannot be reached by the team of the Initiative within three (3) working days, using the contact information provided at the time of entry, or if the communication is returned as undeliverable, that potential participant shall forfeit.


Selected applicants will be granted access to an advanced Storytelling Lab taught and facilitated by Douglas Gayeton, award-winning storyteller and information architect, co-founder of The Lexicon. In this course, participants will learn new techniques that will improve their storytelling skills and be able to better communicate their work with a global audience. This skill includes (but is not limited to) how to build a production plan for a documentary, how to find and interact with subjects, and how to shoot a short documentary.

Twenty of the participants will receive a GoPro Hero 11 Digital Video and Audio Cameras by September 15, 2022. Additional participants may receive GoPro Digital Video and Audio Cameras to be announced at a later date. The recipients will be selected by advisors to the program and will be based on selection criteria (see below) on proposals by Storytelling Lab participants. The selections will keep in accordance with Lab criteria concerning geography, active participation in the Storytelling Lab and commitment to the creation of a story for the Initiative, a GoPro Camera to use to complete the storytelling lab and document their story. These recipients will be asked to sign an acceptance letter with terms of use and condition to receive the camera. 

The Lexicon provides video editors, graphic designers, and animators to support the participants to complete their stories.

The submitted stories will be showcased during international and local events, starting from the closing event of the International Year of Fisheries and Aquaculture 2022 in Rome, in January 2023. The authors of the stories will be credited and may be invited to join.

All selection criteria

Storytelling lab participation:

Applicants that will be granted access to the storytelling Lab will be evaluated based on the entries they provided in the online form, and in particular:

  • The completeness of their form
  • The relevance of their story (coherence with the main goal of the initiative and 10 principles)
  • Written motivation explained
  • Geography (the initiative aims at showcasing stories from all over the world so the mix of locations will be a factor that the selection committee will take into account)

Applications will be evaluated by a team of 4 judges from The Lexicon, GSSI and the team of IYAFA (Selection committee).

When selecting applications, the call promoters may request additional documentation or interviews both for the purpose of verifying compliance with eligibility requirements and to facilitate proposal evaluation.

Camera recipients:

Participants to the Storytelling Lab who will be given a GoPro camera will be selected based on:

  • Quality of the story (coherence with the initiative and the 10 principles)
  • Motivation demonstrated during the interaction in the online class
  • Participation in the online class (participants that will attend less than 4 classes will be automatically excluded)

The evaluation will be carried out by a team of 4 judges from The Lexicon, GSSI and the team of IYAFA (Selection committee).

Incidental expenses and all other costs and expenses which are not specifically listed in these Official Rules but which may be associated with the acceptance, receipt and use of the Storytelling Lab and the camera are solely the responsibility of the respective participants and are not covered by The Lexicon or any of the A Greener Blue partners.

All participants who receive a Camera are required to sign an agreement allowing GoPro for a Cause, The Lexicon and GSSI to utilize the films for A Greener Blue and their promotional purposes. All participants will be required to an agreement to upload their footage into the shared drive of The Lexicon and make the stories, films and images available for The Lexicon and the promoting partners of A Greener Blue.

Additional Limitations

Selection and distribution of the camera is non-transferable. No substitution or cash equivalent of the cameras is granted. The Lexicon and its respective partners and representatives are not responsible for any typographical or other errors in the offer or administration of the Initiative, including, but not limited to, errors in any printing or posting or the Official Rules, the selection and announcement of any selected participant, or the distribution of any equipment. Any attempt to damage the content or operation of this Initiative is unlawful and subject to possible legal action by The Lexicon. The Lexicon reserves the right to terminate, suspend or amend the Initiative, without notice, and for any reason, including, without limitation, if The Lexicon determines that the Lab cannot be conducted as planned or should a virus, bug, tampering or unauthorized intervention, technical failure or other cause beyond The Lexicon’s control corrupt the administration, security, fairness, integrity or proper play of the Contest. In the event any tampering or unauthorized intervention may have occurred, The Lexicon reserves the right to void suspect entries at issue.