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A re-shifting of U.S. agricultural production could be in order

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Devastating droughts in the Midwest and Far West leave some wondering if it's time to re-distribute U.S. agricultural production.

During a recent peanut production meeting in east-central Alabama, Extension specialist Kris Balkcom recalled the extraordinary events of this past production season.

On most days during the summer of 2013, either rain was falling or there was a cloud on the horizon. “Some of our peanuts drowned out in bottomlands, and we lost quite a few of them. But you could take all of those bottoms, swags and terrace channels, add them together, and it wouldn’t be nearly as bad as in a dry year. When it’s dry, it’s dry from one fencerow to the other, and it’s hard to recover from that,” said Balkcom.

In Southeast Alabama, where annual rainfall amounts usually average from 52 to 55 inches, a whopping 105 inches fell in 2013, he said. In other words, it wasn’t a very good year for conducting irrigation trials, which isn’t a bad thing.

Now, compare that to what’s occurring in the Far West. After three consecutive years of below-normal rainfall, California faces its most severe drought emergency in decades. The state’s governor has called for Californians to reduce water use by 20 percent voluntarily, and mandatory rationing could be ordered soon so that homes, businesses and farms don’t run dry during the summer months.

To make matters worse, a federal agency’s recent announcement that the California’s Central Valley will get no water allocation this year was devastating for farmers already dealing with the worst drought many have seen in their lifetimes.

And, it was only a couple of years ago when the nation’s Corn Belt suffered through its own drought devastation.

So what does all of this portend for agriculture here in the Southeast?

Maybe it’s time, as some have suggested, that serious consideration be given to building an irrigation infrastructure in the Eastern U.S. that would allow us to once again decentralize agricultural production and reduce our vulnerability to the vagaries of climate.

Two Alabama scientists – Richard McNider and John Christy – have made a compelling case that major shifts in U.S. agricultural production during the last century could be a bigger risk in drought years than climate change.

They contend that beginning in the middle of the last century, there was a major shift in U.S. agriculture from a distributed agricultural system, where corn and vegetables were grown in most every state, to one in which nearly 90 percent of the nation’s corn production was concentrated in the upper Midwest. A similar shift, they say, occurred in vegetable and potato production, concentrating production in the desert climates of the West.

While this concentration has proven to be highly efficient for the most part, weather calamities of recent years suggest that it might not be sustainable for the future.

For under-irrigated states such as Alabama, and for other Southeastern states, it could be an opportunity in the making.

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