FARMERS IN ALABAMA are playing catchup when it comes to irrigating cropland especially when compared with its neighboring states of Georgia and Mississippi

FARMERS IN ALABAMA are playing catch-up when it comes to irrigating cropland, especially when compared with its neighboring states of Georgia and Mississippi.

Alabama playing catch-up in irrigating cropland

While Alabama is traditionally known as an irrigation-deficit state, there are signs that modest expansion is occurring. Alabama can learn from the mistakes of its neighbors as it moves forward with water policy and irrigation. There are several important considerations for growers who are thinking about irrigating for the first time.

The states of Alabama and Georgia offer a study in contrast when it comes to irrigated cropland. It’s estimated that between 50 to 60 percent or more of Georgia’s farmland is currently irrigated, the result of a progressive expansion that has occurred in recent decades. However, only about 150,000 acres are irrigated in Alabama, a number that definitely ranks it high on the list of “under-irrigated” states.

But there are rumblings of change in Alabama. A state tax incentive from a couple of years ago is believed to have spurred some modest growth in irrigated cropland, and farmers appear to be more interested now in insuring themselves against the calamity of drought.

If there’s an advantage in Alabama’s irrigation deficit, it’s that the state can look to its neighbors such as Georgia and learn from their mistakes, especially in the area of restrictions and regulations, which continue to evolve in most of the Southeastern United States.

“Alabama should take advantage both of the mistakes and progress of neighboring states,” says Wesley Porter, who was recently named the irrigation specialist for both the University of Georgia Extension Service and the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, a position that has him regularly crossing state lines to help farmers with their irrigation issues and concerns.

“It is sometimes difficult to admit that you will see the same problems as neighboring states, but the regulations and problems will always come,” says Porter.

In terms of irrigation use, Georgia has been an especially progressive state, says Porter, and there are some practices in Georgia that can be quickly replicated in Alabama without the trial and error period that Georgia farmers initially endured.

Possibly the biggest obstacle to expanding irrigation in Alabama is the accessibility of its water supply, says Porter.

“Even though Alabama has a plentiful water supply, it is not as easy to reach as it is in Georgia.  Georgia has a very shallow aquifer that much of the southern part of the state has access to.  This makes it very easy to install wells and have adequate water supplies. However, Alabama, does not have easy access to these types of aquifers,” he says.

Typically, says Porter, the water supply throughout much of Alabama comes from surface water. 

“Surface water has many challenges. These challenges can range from just pumping, to the source being too far from the site, and to not having adequate flows during drought periods, which is when you would have the highest water demand for crops,” he says. 

Grower response has been good

Porter has been on the job now for only just over half a year, but he says the response he has received from growers has been positive, and that there’s certainly a need for updated irrigation information in both states.

“There are questions ranging from what’s the best type of irrigation system for a particular operation to how growers can better schedule or manage their irrigation,” he says.

For a dryland grower who is thinking about installing irrigation for the first time, there are several important considerations, says Porter.

“First, water source is the biggest concern,” he says. “Once you’re satisfied that you have an adequate water source – both supply and quality – then you should consider why type of irrigation would be the best fit for your operation. Obviously, pivots and overhead irrigations are very popular. However, these may not be the best fit for every case. 

“Smaller irregularly shaped fields will usually not allow for pivots. In situations such as this, growers should consider drip. Another issue to consider is of course the return on investment.  A grower wants to make sure that the yield increase he sees from installing irrigation will be sufficient enough to pay for the system in a timely manner. Usually, this is tied to field size and the crop being produced. I am currently working collaboratively with economists at the University of Georgia and Auburn University to put together a comprehensive irrigation budget and decision aid tool.”

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