A writer recalls a drought-related scene that lingered in his memory — “a field of corn by the Tennessee River in Alabama.
“With normal rain,” he observes, “it would have made 75 bushels or more per acre as an average.”
It turned out that the crop made only one-third of this amount, even though “this farmer had the best information from his county agent about making corn.
“He had done an excellent job and, yet, his losses were tremendous” — ironic in one sense, considering that “a big river was there” and that “irrigation would have saved his crop, caused it to make a big yield, and pay (sic) him well.”
The writer relates an even gloomier picture throughout the rest of the state.
“Corn, peanuts and pastures went down.” Cotton, a hardier crop, weathered the conditions a little better, though it too was “hit hard.”
Sound familiar? To farmers and many others who have followed this summer’s prolonged drought, it, no doubt, sounds eerily familiar.
But the year is 1951, and the person recalling the tragedy is Alabama Extension Director P.O. Davis, writing in the Dec. 28, 1951, edition of Farm and Ranch.
“From Georgia on the east to Texas on the west, droughts were terrific in the summer of 1951,” Davis observed, adding that the damage had run into the millions of dollars.
Farmers were to suffer through 4 consecutive years of severe drought in the 1950s. And like many agriculture officials and experts of the 21st century, this mid-20th century Extension administrator called on his farmers to irrigate — irrigate, irrigate, irrigate — if the money was available.
“More farmers are irrigating; and those who are doing it have found that it is expensive, but it often pays for itself in a year or two years,” said Davis, speaking three years later at the Association of County Commissioners and Probate Judges in Mobile on Aug. 26, 1954, during an especially severe drought year.
Davis even described the four years of consecutive droughts as one of the “new and bigger challenges” that had arisen recently.
Much of the rest of what Davis relates in the 1951 Farm and Ranch article would sound readily familiar to 21st century producers.
He extolled farmers in Texas who adopted irrigation and who were “now equipped to irrigate 1,600,000 acres in cotton” and to increase their yields of cotton from a tenth of a bale to a bale or more an acre.
Davis also heaped ample praise on Alabama’s early irrigation pioneers — among them E.B. Stowers and W.W. Ward of Conecuh County, who had begun irrigating the previous fall for beef cattle, and Calhoun County farmer T.R. Meadows who had begun irrigating row crops as well as pastures.
He also lauded the rising number of dairymen who had bought in to irrigation, including Senator John L. Whatley of Lee County who, after purchasing equipment for $4,800, was able to irrigate more than 55 acres.
“With an irrigation system a farmer is not at the mercy of droughts,” Davis stressed. “When he plants he can be much more certain as to production.
“He can fertilize and do other things with more assurance as to water and returns.”
Davis also advised farmers to consider making dams and to do other things essential to impounding water in lakes and ponds for irrigation, fish, and other uses.
As parting advice, he also urged farmers to “grow cover crops, add humus and do other things that are feasible in increasing the water-holding capacity of your soil.”
One 21st century water scientist who has been touting the need for irrigation for years says much of what Davis said rings true today — doubly, if not triply, so.
“It’s really the same thing we’re talking about today,” says Jim Hairston, the Alabama Cooperative Extension System’s water coordinator and Auburn University professor of agronomy and soils.
Hairston found Davis’ remarks about the Tennessee River especially ironic, considering that policymakers still have not developed a way to help farmers tap into this abundant source during critically parched periods.
“Right now, the Tennessee River is running at huge capacity despite the drought, but in just a few months, they’ll begin to draw down this capacity,” Hairston says.
Where will this water go? Hairston says virtually all of it will be flushed into other rivers and streams rather than into off-stream reservoirs and underground recharge systems that could serve farmers during critically parched periods of the growing season.
“That’s why a lot of people in other states think we’re a little loco,” he says. “We have plenty of water to store and to recharge, but we don’t think about dry periods until the rain stops.”
Hairston, along with state climatologist John Christy and other water-use experts, has been stressing the need for water policy for years. He says such a policy may be more critically needed than ever considering than the current two-year drought cycle could last for as long as seven years according to some predictions.