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August 24, 2007   Email to Friend 

Jeff Helms
(334) 613-4212
August 24, 2007

U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, left, compares irrigated corn with non-irrigated corn while talking with Bullock County farmer Kendall Cooper, center, and Barbour County farmer Lee Fenn, right.
BULLOCK COUNTY, Ala., Aug. 24 -- Holding a dry, undeveloped corn cob in one hand and a full ear of irrigated corn in the other, U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions today announced his sponsorship of legislation that would provide cost-share assistance to farmers for the creation of on-farm reservoirs, during a news conference in Bullock County organized by the Alabama Farmers Federation.

"We've been talking for years of how we can do a much better job of irrigating," Sessions said. "It's something I think has great potential. Therefore, I am exceedingly pleased to join with Congressman Terry Everett to offer legislation that will provide an incentive, a one-time contribution to farmers, that can help them create the reservoirs that will allow them to irrigate throughout the year. This can make all the difference in the world in how much you produce."

The news conference, which was attended by area farmers, USDA representatives and researchers from Auburn University and the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH), was held at Kendall Cooper's farm near Midway.

"It's essential that we have water," said Cooper, who irrigated much of his corn and peanuts from two ponds until they ran dry. "You have such a short window on corn. That's why we used the water we had to make the corn. There's a window of 14-20 days that you've got to have water. You've got to have it during that period. If you don't, you can water it the rest of the year, and it won't make a difference."

Cooper estimated his irrigated corn would yield 200 bushels per acre this year, but areas that were not under irrigation will yield 20 bushels per acre at most.

Alabama has been called the "epicenter" for drought in the United States this year, with much of the state experiencing its driest weather in 100 years. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, three-fourths of the state is now in an "exceptional" or "D4" drought, the Drought Monitor's worst rating.

In addition to long-term help in the form of irrigation, Sessions said the Alabama congressional delegation is working to provide disaster relief for farmers hit hard by drought.

"We need disaster relief. Our delegation is really unified in this," said Sessions. "We've had Secretary (Mike) Johanns, the secretary of agriculture, over in my office. We've written them letters; we've stayed on top of them. We are going to insist they respond properly and effectively to this drought because it's unprecedented."

Ironically, the U.S. Department of Agriculture today announced the signup period for disaster aid, but that program does not include the 2007 drought.

Max Bozeman, a Coffee County farmer, said this year's drought has been particularly hard on the state's cattle producers.

"Cattle are leaving the state of Alabama at the rate of about 20 percent more since early June than they have in past years. Some of that is due to the lack of feed and hay; some of it's due to a lack of water," Bozeman said. "We usually carry over 20-30 percent of the hay our livestock uses from one year to the next, and this year there was less than 3 percent carryover because of last year's drought, and we are probably 80 percent short of the hay we would normally produce this year."

Dr. John R. Christy, director of the Earth System Science Center at UAH, is among researchers spearheading the Alabama Irrigation Initiative, of which Sessions' legislation is a part.

"This is the driest year in history for most of the cities in the state. So what you are living through here is a once-in-a-hundred-year kind of thing. This is a kind of situation that farmers can't survive," Christy said. "(This legislation) is almost a dream come true for those of us who see the potential of this state - the wonderful potential we have to turn our water and air into something that's viable and economically powerful for the people of this state."

Sessions said taking advantage of Alabama's abundant water resources makes good financial sense for farmers and the nation as a whole.

"Our rainfall is three times that of a lot of areas in the country that farm successfully. I think maybe we've been too dependent on that natural rainfall, and we haven't been at the point where we could really justify irrigation systems to capture rain in those wet months," Sessions said. "When we have streams that are flooding, we can capture that water, and we can save it in reservoirs and utilize it."

With Alabama's abundant rainfall, Christy said most farmers would only have to provide 12 inches of supplemental water through irrigation to make a good crop, whereas Western states use up to four feet of irrigation on agricultural fields.

For more information about the Alabama Irrigation Initiative, visit http://irrigate.uah.edu/.

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