Alabama agents stress irrigation needs

Seeing is believing — just ask the handful of Alabama Cooperative Extension System agents who have just returned after seeing what can be done through stewardship and good old-fashioned American know-how even in a rain-deficient state such as California.

California’s San Joaquin Valley gets only about 5 inches of rain a year — virtually none of this in the summer. Nevertheless, the valley, only 300 miles long and 120 miles wide, manages to raise hundreds of agricultural commodities for the rest of the world.

Why? Largely because of irrigation, coupled with wise water-use practices, which have been modified and perfected over the course of almost a century.

For Amy Winstead, an Extension multi-county agent specializing in precision agriculture, this was the deepest insight she gained from the trip — seeing what California producers are able to grow on such a vast scale, even though their rainfall is extremely limited compared to Alabama and other Southeastern states.

“What we saw in California was a whole different world,” Winstead says. “Annual precipitation is very, very limited, but their farm sector thrives anyway.”

It was the wide array of crops grown in the valley that most impressed David Derrick, a regional Extension agronomy agent in northeast Alabama — an advantage made possible by the region’s vast network of irrigation canals that convey water to field after field.

“The crop diversity really stood out,” Derrick says. “Every farm had 6 to 8 different crops and was growing something all year round.

“Diversity adds a lot of stability.”

Equally impressed was Warren Griffith, a regional Extension agent based in west Alabama.

“Everything is well-calibrated and engineered,” Griffith says. “They’ve learned how to control every input into the crop, including water.”

There are some lessons here for Alabama farmers, these agents say. While Alabama, like few other states, is blessed with ample amounts of rainfall, this moisture sometimes isn’t available when farmers need it most — such as now, for instance.

“We’re looking at the very real possibility of disaster for a third crop the past couple of seasons,” Winstead says. “If we had water when we needed it, some of this simply would not be an issue.

“We’re just a long way from where we need to be.”

What they saw in California is what they would like to see here — an agricultural sector that thrives in spite of occasional setbacks associated with prolonged dryness and that capitalizes on irrigation and water stewardship practices to raise a wide variety of crops. Without this change in mindset, they fear, Alabama will never become the big player in U.S. agriculture it could be.

Currently, irrigation is woefully underused in Alabama, they say. For example, of the 500,000 acres of cotton grown in Alabama, only 8 to 10 percent is irrigated. By one estimate, placing only half of Alabama’s non-irrigated cotton acreas under irrigation would generate an additional $56 million to the state’s farm economy.

Aside from that, taking water for granted simply is a luxury Alabamians in general no longer can afford. As these agents stress, a variety of factors — for starters, continued population growth and a spate of dry growing seasons in the past few years — ultimately will force all Alabamians, farmers included, to rethink water use and stewardship.

Many years ago, California growers learned how to bring irrigation and other technologies and wise-use water policies to bear on their challenges. The end result has been a highly profitable, diversified farming sector. Agents believe a similar future awaits Alabama — if and when they are willing to make similar investments.

One especially viable approach, these agents say, would be to build off-stream reservoirs to store water from streams during periods of high rainfall, such as during winter, so it will be available to tide farmers over the sometimes sun-parched summer months.

For Alabama farmers, the biggest challenge remains money and labor.

“This is all going to entail a lot of expense, and without grants, lots of farmers just don’t have the money to do this,” says Tim Reed, Franklin County’s Extension coordinator.

Reed cites one northwest Alabama farmer who already is irrigating 400 acres of drought-stressed corn — shelling out $600 dollars a day just to cover diesel fuel costs.

In many cases, Reed believes government-sponsored grants will be the only way farmers will be able to adopt water-use practices.

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