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August 01, 2011   Email to Friend 

USDA Grant To Study Benefits Of Irrigation In Southeast
Debra Davis

Baldwin County Farmers Federation President and State Board Member David Bitto, left, and Dr. Richard McNider compare irrigated cotton to dry-land cotton.
Drought conditions that have plagued portions of Alabama this summer are a good example of why the state may benefit from an almost $2.2 million grant to study the expansion of irrigation here.

"The Southeast may be in a sweet spot," said Dr. Richard McNider from The University of Alabama in Huntsville. "We are one of the few places in the country with both the water and the land that will be needed to substantially increase farm production."

Supported by the USDA grant, McNider leads a team that will spend the next four years studying the environmental and economic impacts that widespread expansion of irrigated agriculture might have in the Southeast. The test region includes Alabama, Mississippi, North Florida, Georgia and South Carolina. "This could become very important in the near future, as California and other Western states continue to struggle with escalating water shortages. Southern New Mexico, for instance, recently set an all-time record for consecutive days without rain," he said.

The American Farm Bureau Federation reports that by 2050, the world's population will reach 9 billion people, and global food production must double to meet this demand.

The Southeastern United States might be uniquely equipped with the right combination of natural resources to meet the nation's growing demand for farm products, McNider said.

"If the forecasts for climate change are accurate, the dry Western states will get drier and the wet states will get wetter," said McNider, a professor emeritus of atmospheric science at UAH. "Whether we have climate change or not, the Western region is very likely to return to the 'normal' climate of the previous 500 years, which is much drier than the climate of the past 100 years."

In either case, the impact on food, fiber and energy security will be significant, he said, adding that now is the time to start thinking about how to deal with those issues, instead of waiting for a crisis that is imminent.

Mitt Walker of the Alabama Farmers Federation monitors water issues for the organization. He said McNider's study could provide information to farmers and policy makers to help determine what future row crop production in the Southeast will look like. He said the Southeast has substantial advantages over other areas of the country that are dependent on irrigation.

"An interesting point to consider is that irrigation in the Southeast only has to supplement the rain this region already receives during the growing season," Walker said. "In other areas, particularly the Western states, irrigation has to supply virtually all of the water needed to produce a crop."

McNider's research team includes climate and weather modeling experts at UAH; ecologists at The University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa; agricultural economists at the University of Georgia; crop modelers at Washington State University; water policy experts at California State University at Long Beach; and hydrology modelers at the U.S. Forest Service.

The study's goals include determining how much surface water is available for irrigation, and how much is needed for optimum farm production. The team will look at the environmental impact of taking water out of local ecological systems and whether large-scale irrigation can be sustained over long periods of time.

The models McNider has previously used for Alabama-specific research include drawing water from rivers that are brimming during winter rains and filling on-farm reservoirs for use during growing season.

In addition to climate change, several factors may be coming together that will make irrigation-assisted farming in the Southeast more economically attractive, McNider said. "There was a time when just about every farmer in Alabama raised at least some corn," he said. "But as corn production increased with irrigation in other parts of the country, and trucking became inexpensive, farmers here could buy corn cheaper than they could raise it."

That scenario has changed with high fuel costs raising the price of shipping across the country. He said the growing demand for alternative fuels, especially ethanol and biodiesel, could mean that droughts or flooding in the Midwest may cause drastic swings in prices for both food and gasoline in the future.

"We have made ourselves vulnerable to drought in the Midwest, at the same time we deal with almost inevitable water shortages in the West," McNider said.

McNider said he believes by improving the growing conditions through widespread irrigation in the South, America will protect its food supply.

"As ethanol production increases in the Midwest, they could conceivably consume all the corn that is produced there, leaving the South with a substantial void," he said. "Imagine the impact on poultry and livestock production here if affordable corn were no longer available. It could put enough pressure on the poultry industry to force it to relocate, possibly outside our country." McNider said a government-backed irrigation initiative would prove more beneficial in the long run than most crop insurance programs.

"Irrigation is the best long-range crop insurance you can invest in," he said.

For more information, contact McNider at (256) 961-7756 or mcnider@nsstc.uah.edu.



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