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?

Not a surprise

It comes as no surprise, says Fowler, that 80 percent of the irrigation in the United States is west of the Mississippi River. “If you look at the use of water, and the net consumption of water for all purposes in the U.S., there’s a distinct difference between the Eastern U.S. and the Western U.S. The Western part uses a large portion of their available water, and there are increasing demands for the water that is available. There are parts of the West that actually use more water than they have, so they’re over-subscribed,” he says.

The Eastern U.S., however, uses a very small portion of its available water, says Fowler. “We have a lot of potential for additional water use in the eastern U.S. The biggest part of renewable water — through runoff — occurs in the eastern part of the United States. Alabama is directly in the center of a good area — we have a lot of renewable water resources in this state.”

Looking at the specific use of water for irrigation, again the West comes out on top, he says. “A lot of the eastern portion of the United States uses less water for irrigation purposes. Alabama is among the states that uses the least amount of available water for irrigation.

“We have an abundance of water, but we don’t have much irrigation. Iowa doesn’t use much water for irrigation, but they have soils that hold water well during the winter. In Alabama, we’re always 14 days away from a major drought due to our soil characteristics.”

Many of the federal programs enacted in the 2008 farm bill encouraged taking more land out of irrigation in the Western U.S., says Fowler, so there are more irrigation decreases in the West.

“Western irrigation is not sustainable,” he says. “It’s already in decline, and that portion of U.S. crop production is going to go somewhere else. The question is, can some of it come to Alabama? I think we can get a niche part of it.

“I don’t think we’ll get a windfall of crop production in the state, but I think we can get enough to make a significant economic impact. Personally, I think that a lot of the agricultural production we lose in the Western U.S. will go offshore.”

It’s difficult, he says, to make a blanket statement that irrigation is economically feasible in Alabama.

“It is, but under the right conditions,” says Fowler. “If you’ve got access to water, you have a good land ownership arrangement, and the right capital, then it’s economically feasible.

“Our research says that given reasonable assumptions, and based on crop models and historic weather data, in many cases irrigated crop production in Alabama would have been more profitable than non-irrigated production. Agriculture would have been a better driver in the state’s economy with irrigation than it has been in the past 20 years.

Favorable comparison

“We can compare favorably to the Midwest and West in terms of yield with irrigation in Alabama. There’s no doubt that irrigation can increase yields over a longer period of time and reduce the variability of yields.”

The big question, he adds, is whether irrigation is more profitable. “There are situations in Alabama where it can be profitable, but there are variabilities. Comparing irrigated corn production in Alabama with corn production in Iowa, the higher the price of corn, the better we can compete with farmers in the Corn Belt.”

There are concerns nationwide about the environmental impacts of agricultural irrigation, says Fowler.

“Agricultural irrigation gets a bad reputation in many parts of the country. That’s why the federal focus now is on trying to reduce agricultural irrigation in the western part of the country. It has such a negative impact on the environment.

“But we believe if irrigation is done right in Alabama, we could support one million acres of irrigated agriculture with no negative environmental impacts. We have about two and a half million acres that is prime irrigatable agricultural land.”

Alabama also has an abundance of water, he continues. “We’ve proven that water can be harvested. We also have an abundance of groundwater. We have about 15 times as much groundwater as we do surface water.

“Sometimes it’s hard to find, and sometimes it’s pretty deep down. In cases where we do have surface water, it’s possible to collect and store winter water and then successfully irrigate with no negative impacts on the stream. This is the concept of the AWEP program.”

Alabama, he adds, has more water resources than most other states in the country.

You can’t look at the potential benefits of agricultural irrigation in Alabama without considering the state’s poultry industry, says Fowler.

“One of the best ways to look at this is to look at the relationship between irrigated crop production in the state and our poultry industry. The poultry industry is the 900-pound gorilla in Alabama agriculture.

“It has a tremendous agriculture impact. There are 75,000 jobs in the state that are related to the poultry industry.

Ten percent of total economy

The value of the industry is $8.5 billion, which is 10 percent of the state’s total economy.”

The poultry industry, he says, is dependent upon corn and soybeans as feed, and Alabama is a deficit state in both corn and soybean production.

“We now have a severe drought in the Midwestern Corn Belt. There’s always a risk with having a lot of your production concentrated in one area of the country. Prices already are high and probably will continue to go up.

“Alabama uses 150 million bushels of corn, with a lot of that being used by our poultry and livestock industries. But we only produce 30 million bushels, so we import 120 million bushels of corn into Alabama, largely to support our poultry industry.”

Mississippi, on the other hand, is not a deficit corn-producing state, he says.

“They probably were 20 years ago, but they made a decision not to be any longer. If Alabama could become self sufficient in corn production, at 120 million bushels of corn, at a conservative estimate of $6 per bushel, that would be $720 million of income that we could keep in the state that we’re sending out of the state now.

“If you use a multiplier for agricultural production, you can get up to $2.5 billion and as many as 9,000 jobs.

“We’re almost in the same situation with soybeans, as far as the economic impact. The combined effect of increased soybean and corn production in the state would be $1.5 billion in direct money that we could keep within the state. It would be a tremendous economic driver.”

Fowler points out that corn and soybeans are just two examples, with Alabama farmers also growing cotton, peanuts and horticultural crops. “We have a lot of potential to improve the rural economy of the state with increased irrigation.”

phollis@farmpress.com