The Alabama Irrigation Summit, which will bring the state’s farmers, policy makers and water-use experts together to discuss irrigation’s immense potential for enhancing Alabama agricultural output and revitalizing rural economies, will be held Aug. 15, 2012, at the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries Richard Beard Building, located at 1445 Federal Drive, Montgomery.

By establishing an “open and frank” dialogue on this issue, organizers hope to bring these key players closer to the long-sought goal of developing a comprehensive strategy for the widespread adoption of irrigation technologies and practices and also removing the barriers that have historically hampered this adoption, according to Samuel Fowler, director of Auburn University’s Environmental Institute, who has taken the lead in organizing this meeting.

The summit will also provide farmers with information about how the state’s new state income tax credit can be used to adopt irrigation technologies and practices, he says, adding that agricultural lenders, whose support will be critical to building an irrigation infrastructure, will also be included as key participants in this dialogue.

The meeting will be held from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Lunch will be provided by Alabama Ag Credit Lenders.

The sponsors of the summit are the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, the Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station, the Alabama Irrigation Initiative, the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries, the Alabama Farmers Federation, the Alabama Ag Credit Alabama Farm Credit, and the Alabama Office of the State Climatologist.

Producer panel discussion

In addition to remarks by many of the state’s principal agricultural leaders and researchers on water- and irrigation-related issues, the Summit will also feature a panel discussion of producers who will share their own experiences regarding irrigation use on the farm.

The Alabama irrigation story is a tragic one of missed opportunities, Fowler says.

In fact, in a state that receives roughly 55 inches of rainfall annually, row-crop production has declined by millions of acres within the last half century.

The state’s rural localities have suffered especially acutely from this decline, Fowler says. While row-crop farming typically generates an estimated $500 to $900 an acre each year within local rural economies, the timber farming and conservation set-asides that have replaced it in many rural localities within the last 50 years generate less than $100 an acre.

Following a decade-long, comprehensive investigation into this issue, a team of researchers representing several Alabama universities concluded that the agricultural sector’s failure to make full use of its rainfall and irrigation potential accounts in large measure for its loss of competitiveness in row-crop production compared with neighboring southern states.

“While Alabama has fewer than 120,000 acres of row crop irrigation, the neighboring states of Georgia and Mississippi each have well over a million acres under irrigation,” Fowler says.

With adequate levels of irrigation adoption, there is no reason why Alabama could not compete favorably with the region of the country most prized for its row-crop output — the West and Midwest, he says.

In fact, crop models, experimental research plots and, most significant, real irrigating by Alabama farmers have demonstrated that with adequate levels of irrigation, Alabama farmers can compete effectively with the West and Midwest.

“This will require some long-term policies,” Fowler says. “Alabama has lost its agriculture over a 50-year period, and we won’t recover it overnight.”

 “We have to fully understand the past and why the agricultural system failed before we can correct it.”

Fowler and other organizers of the summit hope this event will provide the context within which these questions can be framed and ultimately answered.

Registration for the Summit began June 1, 2012. For more information and to register, visit http://www.aaes.auburn.edu/water/conf/2012/
(For insight into how some Alabama growers are taking advantage of irrigation, click here and here. For an in-depth look at obstacles hindering irrigation in Alabama, click here).