BEATING THE HEAT: Drought’s Devastation Renews Push For Irrigation
When the skies grew dark and a few droplets of rain began to pelt the windows, the mood inside the tour bus grew considerably lighter.”What’s that on the window?” a voice called out from the back of the Commodity Producers Conference farm tour bus. “I haven’t seen that in awhile.”Of course, the farmer was only joking — there’s not much else Alabama farmers can do except laugh in the face of a drought that has parched the earth from Athens to Dothan. In its wake are stressed-out crops and cattle, and a renewed interest in irrigation. “The rain we’ve had over the last few weeks has been a help, but what it’s done most is relieve a lot of the tension the farmers have had with their crop situation,” said Buddy Adamson, director of the Alabama Farmers Federation’s Wheat & Feed Grains and Cotton Divisions.Indeed, most farmers say the few scattered showers that arrived in late July are too little too late to salvage the 2006 harvest. “The biological clock started ticking when we planted in April and May, and we’re already two-thirds through the fruiting period,” said Dale County farmer Thomas Kirkland, who had 500 acres in peanuts and 900 acres in cotton. “We’ve run out of time real fast. “Right now, worst-case scenario, we’ll probably make 25 percent of a normal crop, and the way crop insurance is, you’ll have to harvest that. Whatever you harvest will go against what you collect. So it’s a no-win situation. It’s just about a total crop failure,” Kirkland added. “Even if a tropical depression came in here now and we got two or three inches of rainfall, it would make the plant start growing again and you’d have two different crops of cotton. The cotton on bottom would be poor quality and would rot if you wait. So, we’re in a no-win situation.”Few commodities escaped the summer’s wrath as the rainfall deficit averaged 20 inches across Alabama. The United States Department of Agriculture predicted 75 percent of the corn crop and 50 percent of the cotton crop would be lost. Soybean yields aren’t much better. Cornstalk borers are giving peanut producers fits. Hay inventories are so low cattle farmers were selling calves earlier than normal, pushing stockyard sales 30 to 50 percent higher and farmers’ profits lower.The lack of rainfall also meant that poultry producers would see their poultry litter sales dwindle. Catfish farmers were reducing feed and aerating more as water levels in ponds plunged. Hunters, too, may see wildlife impacted as rain-starved oaks fail to produce acorns for deer and turkey, and foresters are nervously keeping watch out for Southern pine beetles.Henry County farmers Jim Yance and Sammy Williams spent much of their summer watching weather radar, but getting more misses than hits. “You could see the clouds coming, and it looked like they were racing across the sky,” said Yance. “They’d come from the west, and they’d go south. They’d go north, and they’d split and go around and hit the river and go into Georgia.””Honest to goodness, the radar showed it coming down from Montgomery to Auburn,” said Williams. “It was probably a 50-mile or better rectangle of rain. But when it got to just the other side of Haleburg (Henry County), this hole appeared, and it stayed there, and the rain went around it. The hole got bigger, and it just dissipated. It was just like somebody put an umbrella up.”Williams, however, wasn’t as badly hurt by the misses, thanks to an irrigation system that covers 80 percent of his crops — an oddity of sorts in Alabama where only 179,000 acres of farmland — less than 9 percent of the state’s total cultivated acreage — are under irrigation.Williams said he installed his first irrigation system, a 100-acre cable-tow system, in 1975. “We had a dryland field across the road from the system, and the difference in the yield on that 100 acres and the one across from the irrigated field paid for the system in one year. Makes you feel really good.”That’s just the point that the Alabama Irrigation Initiative is trying to make as a dozen Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station scientists with Auburn University and researchers from four other Alabama universities engage in a four-year study of the potential of large-scale irrigation for the state’s agriculture industry.”Back in 2000 we got to talking about irrigation, and of course, we forgot about it,” said Federation Board Member John Walker III as he moderated a seminar on the project at the 34th annual Commodity Producers Conference in Huntsville last month. “This year, the drought has really hit hard if you’re a dryland farmer like I am. We get around 50 inches of rain annually in Alabama, give or take, depending on the location. The problem is getting that rain through the growing season. But if we could capture that rain, capture that water, and hold it until we can use it during the growing season, then that would be a great advantage.”Dr. Richard McNider, a University of Alabama Huntsville atmospheric scientist, agrees. He said Midwest and Western states have overtaken the East in agricultural production not because they are better farmers, but solely because of government-funded irrigation projects.”The government is spending billions upon billions for water projects out West,” said McNider. “One example is in lining the canal that goes from the Colorado River to San Diego — they’re going to spend $200 million to save 77,000 acre feet of water. In California, because they have to put about 4 feet of water on their crops, that will only serve about 20,000 irrigated acres. “If we were to spend that same $200 million a year for on-farm storage in Alabama, we could store 300,000 acre-feet and support 300,000 to 600,000 acres of irrigated land. For the same cost, we can put 600,000 acres in production while California can only put 20,000 acres. So bang for your buck, the best place to spend money on water projects for agriculture is going to be the eastern United States. We’re a 15-to-1 better deal.”Furthermore, McNider said, the state’s plentiful water supply, coupled with its low consumption, makes it an ideal candidate for location of ethanol or other biofuel manufacturers.”There is no reason that we in Alabama can’t beat Midwestern farmers if we put water on our fields,” he said. “What I hope for is 50 years from now that piping systems all over the state will take this water and deposit it into on-farm storage facilities or maybe even other off-stream facilities that farmers will share as a reservoir, and that would open up use of that water all over the state.” For more information on the Alabama Irrigation Initiative, visit the official website at www.irrigate.uah.edu..