Irrigation a critical need for Alabama peanuts

With the stereotypically incisive wit for which he is remembered, Calvin Coolidge once observed that “if you see 10 troubles coming down the road, you can be sure that nine will run into the ditch before they reach you.”

It is a saying to which many Alabama peanut farmers can relate. Elimination of the peanut quota several years ago convinced many growers that the end was nigh. Yet, a strange thing happened on the way to extinction.

While peanut production declined in the drier regions of the Southwest, it actually posted gains in some regions of the Southeast, notably in areas of heavy irrigation.

“The ability to irrigate played a big role in determining where peanuts would be grown in Alabama, but so did another rediscovered farming principle — crop rotation,” says Robert Goodman, an Alabama Cooperative Extension System economist and Auburn University professor of agricultural economics.

In fact, Goodman says, the rotation of peanuts with cotton and corn is a practice that has benefited all three crops by reducing yield losses from nematodes and crop diseases.

Still, the biggest challenge, he says, remains lack of irrigation — an especially critical need in Alabama, which consistently has lost out to neighboring states with cropland that is "better suited to traditional irrigation methods and where cheap reliable water for irrigation is readily available.”

“We've got so much money tied up in these crops,” Goodman says, “and the only thing keeping us from making money remains adequate yields. But yield depends on production and production depends on water.”

Goodman's concerns are shared by Jim Hairston, an Extension water quality specialist who has been making the argument for years.

Irrigation, Hairston says, is an especially critical factor for peanuts, not only because the plants require lots of water but because without adequate moisture, it's difficult to harvest the crops in heavier soils common to regions of the state outside the Wiregrass.

“Irrigation is as much a harvest aid as it is a production factor,” Hairston says. “You can't dig peanuts very efficiently out of hard ground. You need an adequate level of moisture to soften the soil for efficient harvesting to occur.”

The lack of irrigation, Hairston believes, partly accounts for why peanut acreage in other Southeast states has increased since the quota was phased out while Alabama's has declined slightly.

The Associated Press, for example, recently credited “highly irrigated land,” for acreage increases in Georgia, Florida and South Carolina.

Georgia, the nation's largest peanut producer, actually has increased its acreage substantially despite the quota phase-out, according to the article. The state reported 614,250 acres were planted in peanuts in 2004, compared with an average of 521,268 acres between 1998 and 2001.

“Georgia producers saw the opportunities right off the bat,” Hairston says. “They knew the adequate moisture provided by irrigation would insure a good chance for profit so they said, 'Let's have at it.'”

Hairston, an Auburn University professor of agronomy and soils, wants to insure the same opportunities for Alabama — not only for peanuts but for other crops that already are growing in Georgia and other states with high levels of irrigated cropland. He, along with an informal coalition of scientists at other Alabama universities, is working with the state's policymakers to enhance irrigation opportunities for farmers, especially in areas of the state where farming income has declined largely due to the lack of this resource.

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