Throughout his tenure as director of what was then known as the Alabama Extension Service, the late P.O. Davis lost no opportunity to encourage farmers to irrigate.

Writing in the Dec. 28, 1951 edition of Farm and Ranch, Davis related the story of a Tennessee Valley corn producer whose crop looked especially promising. The farmer diligently followed all the recommendations of his Extension agent but in the end garnered only a third of the harvest he had expected.

Weather — or, more specifically, the lack of adequate rainfall — was the culprit.

In one sense, it was a deeply ironic story, considering the farmer was located only a short distance from an almost boundless supply of water, the Tennessee River. Like so many Alabama producers then and now, he failed to heed repeated calls for irrigation and ended up paying a heavy price.

Adding further irony to this story, Alabama farmers ended up enduring more than four years of drought following the publication of Davis’s article.

Even today, more than 60 years later, few Alabama farmers are irrigating, despite the repeated calls of agricultural researchers, whose research findings have demonstrated the immense value this practice confers.

Research, crop modeling and the real-life experiences of producers have consistently demonstrated that adequate irrigation would enable Alabama to compete effectively with the West and Midwest, the regions of the country most prized for their agricultural output.

What Alabama lacks — the arid West’s water infrastructure and Midwest’s bountiful supplies of deep water-holding topsoil — it more than makes up with abundant rainfall, an average 55 inches of rainfall each year.

Losing row crop acreage

Sadly, though, the failure to irrigate has been a major contributor to the wholesale decline of row-crop farming within the last half century, reflected in the loss of millions of row-crop acres throughout the state. Ironically, with the rise of poultry production, we now consume more corn than ever, though Alabama plants only about 10 percent of the corn acreage under cultivation in 1950.  

In 2011, Alabama imported approximately 120 million bushels of corn and 60 million bushels of soybeans at a cost of approximately $1.4 billion.  

Row-crop farming generates anywhere from $500 to $900 an acre annually within local rural economies. The timber harvesting and conservation set-asides that have replaced row-crop acreage within the last 60 years generate only about $100 an acre annually.  

Adding a million acres of irrigated farmland would have the equivalent economic impact of two automotive assembly plants. However, unlike out-of-state corporations, Alabama farmers have their corporate headquarters here — usually in their homes — so almost all the profits would be spent in Alabama.

Despite the immense potential irrigation offers this state, only about 120,000 Alabama cropland acres are currently under irrigation, while the neighboring states of Georgia and Mississippi each have well over a million acres under irrigation.  

In one sense, this is good news: It presents Alabama farming with ways to capitalize on new, more environmentally sustainable irrigation technologies.

A coalition of farmers, land-grant university educators, and policymakers hope to put an end to this long, frustrating saga of irony and missed opportunities.  

The Alabama Irrigation Summit, scheduled for Aug. 15 in Montgomery, will bring the key players together to explore irrigation’s immense potential not only to enhance the state’s agricultural output, but also to revitalize the state’s declining rural communities.

We hope this summit will spark a frank dialogue, one that ultimately will lead to a comprehensive strategy for the widespread adoption of irrigation practices and remove the barriers that have hampered widespread adoption.

The summit will also provide producers with information about how the state’s new income tax credit can be used to adopt irrigation technologies and practices.

Much is a stake for the future of Alabama agriculture. There is no time to lose — the reason why so much hope rides on this event.

EDITOR’S NOTE — Samuel Fowler, Ph.D., serves as director of Auburn University’s Environmental Institute. Richard McNider, Ph.D., is a Distinguished Professor of Atmospheric Science Emeritus at the University of Alabama in Huntsville and chairs the Alabama University Irrigation Initiative.
For more information and to register for the Summit, visit http://www.aaes.auburn.edu/water/conf/2012/.

(For an earlier report on the summit, visit Alabama Irrigation Summit to jumpstart declining farm sector.

To see some of the problems the state’s growers face when considering irrigation, click here. And finally, to see how one Alabama farm operation has geared up big-time with state of the art irrigation technology, click here).