Increasing irrigated cropland in Alabama could potentially add billions of dollars to the state’s economy, but are there too many barriers currently for the state’s farmers?

That’s one of several questions that were asked during the recent Alabama Irrigation Summit held in Montgomery.

“We’re at the threshold of some good times for agriculture in Alabama,” says Sam Fowler, director of the Auburn University Water Resources Center. However, he adds, several barriers still remain for growers, including access to water, lack of capital and aversion to risking capital, land rent issues, and even the age of farmers.

Potential economic benefits could be in the billions of dollars, easily rivaling any other economic development in the state, he says.

“I’m not saying I think Alabama will make a quantum leap in increased agricultural production and irrigation,” says Fowler. “But we can increase our agricultural production and reduce our deficit in areas such as corn and soybeans.”

Fowler discussed the work of the Alabama Universities Irrigation Initiative, which was begun almost a decade ago. The project has been led by the National Space Science and Technology Center in Huntsville and includes several universities and other partners.

The work of the initiative, he says, has led to the Agricultural Water Enhancement Program (AWEP) under the 2008 farm bill and the recent Alabama Irrigation Tax Credit legislation.

(You might also be interested in Alabama irrigation tax credit regulations detailed and Irrigation: A story of irony, lost opportunity in Alabama farming).

The project also resulted in the 2011 report, “Mitigating Local & Regional Agricultural Drought by Increasing Irrigation Using Cool-Season Run-Off.”

The objectives of the project, says Fowler, have been to assess the long-term trends in irrigated agricultural production nationwide, and the implications those trends may have for Alabama and to answer a few fundamental questions:

• Is the current Western irrigation system sustainable, and if not what are the implications for the U.S. and for Alabama?

• Is increased irrigation in Alabama both economically feasible and environmentally sustainable?

• What could be the potential benefits of expanded irrigation in Alabama?

• What are the barriers to increasing irrigation in Alabama, and how can these barriers be addressed?