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Commentary: Irrigation helps U.S. farmers feed the world

By Jim Anderson

Recently an article was published by Minnesota Public Radio that criminalized irrigation agriculture and tried to embarrass the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources for not protecting our groundwater.

Since the beginning of irrigated farming in Minnesota over 50 years ago, farmers have been working with the DNR to make certain our use of water was sustainable. My grandfather, Carl, volunteered his time to take monthly measurements of monitoring wells that were set up in our area in the 1960s to follow any changes in groundwater levels.

The DNR currently has 42 monitoring wells in our area checking both surficial (shallow) and buried artesian (deep) aquifers. To date these wells have shown the same spring recharge levels that were present before irrigation with minor differences following precipitation trends. Data and hydrographs for all of these wells are available on the DNR website.

Minnesota farmers are adopting the latest technology to conserve water and protect water quality. With the help of local county Natural Resource Conservation Service offices and irrigation extension agents, many of us have installed low-pressure drop nozzles with pressure regulators to limit evaporation; use irrigation scheduling to apply just enough water when needed; and are planting cover crops to boost water holding capacity. We are also adopting variable-rate technology as it evolves to place less water on areas of a field with heavier soils.

Most of us who have livestock have installed manure containment structures to better utilize its nutrient value and protect our water. Today’s genetically modified seeds have greatly reduced the use of pesticides and long-lasting herbicides.

Since the year 2000, precision farming has been the most wonderful and exciting innovation that has ever been implemented by today’s farmers. Many think of this technology as enabling farmers to plant picture-perfect straight rows with the push of a button.

Actually the big payoff comes with being able to produce more crops with fewer inputs. Using data gleaned from past yield maps, soil grid samples, manure samples, and soil type surveys, prescriptions are written for input applications. Planters that vary seeding rates and fertilizer and manure spreaders that vary rates of crop nutrients are all becoming commonplace in today’s agriculture. By applying just what a crop uses, we are attempting to eliminate nutrient runoff and protect the water quality of our groundwater and lakes and streams while at the same time saving us money.

Irrigated agriculture is very important in feeding today’s world. It is estimated that nationwide nearly one half of all U.S. crop revenue grows on the 16 percent of agricultural land that is irrigated (Successful Farming March 2014 from USDA, Economics Research Service). We all realize water is an important resource and want it to be available into the future.

The DNR has adopted a groundwater management program and has established three pilot groundwater management areas in Minnesota. My family farms in one of the designated areas called the Bonanza Valley. The DNR is having monthly meetings to initiate a conversation on groundwater. Hopefully by engaging all stakeholders that depend on water, we can develop a plan that protects the sustainability and water quality of our groundwater resources and the economic viability of our region.

Jim Anderson, his brother and his three sons and their families operate an irrigated grain and livestock farm near Belgrade.