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Irrigation becoming more of a necessity for farmers in Southeast

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• Irrigation was once considered an option for Southeast farmers, but it appears it's now becoming a necessity.

It’ll come as no surprise to many of you that irrigation was determined to be the No. 1 key in our recent listing to the Keys to Peanut Profitability.

In our online poll where we asked our readers to select their own No. 1 key, irrigation received more votes than any of the other nine choices.

What once was considered to be an option for Southeastern farmers appears to be becoming a necessity. But like with most things, adoption has been slower in some parts of the region than in others.

In Alabama, especially, row-crop farmers are considered “under-irrigated” when compared to their counterparts in Georgia, Florida and Mississippi. And it certainly isn’t because the state’s rainfall is more abundant.

While Alabama receives an average rainfall amount of 55 inches per year, drought severity — particularly during the summer months — is just as commonplace in Alabama as in neighboring states.

Although data suggests a major expansion of irrigation on Alabama’s farmland would significantly boost profit margins and agriculture’s impact on the state, growers said in a recent survey that too many obstacles still stand between them and adopting irrigation technology.

Currently it’s estimated that only about 10 percent, or fewer than 120,000 acres of the state’s farmland, is irrigated. In comparison, Georgia and Mississippi each have more than one million acres under irrigation.

It’ll come as no shock that Alabama farmers cite finances as their primary obstacle to irrigation, including the costs of installing, improving and powering irrigation systems, the inability to finance such systems, and concerns that irrigation wouldn’t pay for itself in a timely enough manner.

The consequences of under-irrigating have been dire. It’s not simply a case of Alabama farmers lagging behind their neighbors in average crop yields. Researchers say that the agricultural sector’s failure to make full use of its irrigation potential has resulted in a major loss in row-crop production along with inestimable damage to countless rural economies.

But maybe it’s not too late to try and remedy the situation. People in position to do something about it have taken notice, and there are hopeful signs.

For one, the Alabama Legislature, in its most recent session, turned its focus from the immigration issue long enough to pass a bill that could prove beneficial for farmers wanting to irrigate.

The new state income tax credit will provide up to $10,000 for growers to adopt irrigation technologies and practices. The credit will cover such things as constructing reservoirs, purchasing irrigation equipment, and converting diesel irrigation systems to electric.

In addition, the Alabama Irrigation Summit, sponsored by numerous state agricultural agencies and organizations, will be held Aug. 15 at the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries Richard Beard Building, at 1445 Federal Drive, Montgomery.

The summit promises to be an “open and frank” discussion about “irrigation's immense potential for enhancing Alabama agricultural output and revitalizing rural economies.”

It’ll be a rare opportunity for the state’s farmers to meet with policy-makers and water-use experts, with the ultimate goal of coming up with a comprehensive strategy for the widespread adoption of irrigation technologies and practices and also removing the barriers that have historically hampered this adoption

It’s a must-attend meeting for anyone in Alabama who is farming, or who is interested in the long-term viability of farming in the state. For more information and to register, visit http://www.aaes.auburn.edu/water/conf/2012/.

I would be remiss not to mention here that our Lower Southeast Peanut Profitability Award winners this year — the Terry’s from Lake City, Fla. — are dryland producers, and they averaged 5,800 pounds of peanuts per acre with no irrigation.

However, they have a very unique production system, and they’ll be the first to tell you they’ve been extremely fortunate in maintaining high yields during drought years. In other words, dryland farming is not for the faint of heart, or the inexperienced.

phollis@farmpress.com

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