Original story aired as part of Under the Microscope (Luke Runyon)
The future of agriculture across the Great Plains hinges on water. Without it, nothing can grow.
Climate models and population growth paint a pretty bleak picture for water availability a few decades from now. If farmers want to stay in business, they have to figure out how to do more with less. Enter: super efficient irrigation systems.
The stakes of figuring out how to sustain large-scale agriculture on the plains are high. In the most arid regions, farmers already overdrawing underground sources. Development continues to encroach. Climate models show precipitation will become much more variable.
“All those things are kind of coming together for a perfect storm, meaning we’re going to have less water to work with in the future,” said Tom Trout, a researcher at the U.S. Department of Agriculture who focuses on efficient and effective irrigation methods.
Trout’s research plots in rural Weld County, Colo., are filled with fields of bright yellow sunflowers and rows of corn. The fields are equipped with drip irrigation in the form of plastic tubing that brings precise amounts of water right to plants’ roots. He’s a USDA researcher with a mandate.
“What we’re trying to figure out is how to continue to get good yields with less water,” Trout said, calling that question the central mystery plaguing farmers who rely on irrigated farmland.
Solving that problem is not an easy task. Crops need water. When farmers cut back too much, the plants don’t grow as well. Most irrigation systems blanket crop areas with water to ensure thirsty plants get a drink. Trout’s research is attempting to pin down the sweet spot: getting plants just as much water as they need at exactly the right times. When that happens, you free up lots of extra water.
“It’s like getting our bodies used to eating less food, for example, and creating a new equilibrium for ourselves,” Trout said.
About ten miles away from the research fields, Fagerburg Produce, one of the largest producers of onions in the country, has already embraced the new technology.
“It was about water savings and quality,” said Rod Weimer, farm manager for Fagerburg Produce. More than ten years ago, he helped install what he calls the “Cadillac of irrigation systems.”
“It’s kind of like a big sprinkler system in your yard,” Weimer said, referring to the underground tubing that snakes beneath the farm’s 900 acres of onions, dry beans and corn.
The system requires multiple control rooms, white sheds positioned throughout the farm’s property. Each houses crimson-colored cisterns, which filter water pumped from both underground reservoirs and from canals that divert water from nearby rivers.
This system is a textbook example of drip irrigation, much more tech-savvy than old-school methods that flood fields with water. Weimer can irrigate 900 acres of onions with the push of a button on his smartphone. The plastic piping is so precise, the farm uses 30 percent less water than it did before this system was installed. It cost about $4,000 per acre, and last year, one of the driest on record in Colorado, it paid off.
“On dry years, you may think you’ve got a lot of water, but if you don’t water up in the mountains, you’re not going to get all your water,” Weimer said. “So that’s what this is all about.”
But even when farmers switch to more efficient irrigation, it’s not an easy task to figure out who gets the extras. Colorado’s byzantine water law can be difficult to navigate. And there’s little incentive to make the switch from flood irrigation to more efficient systems.
“Farmers are probably better at conserving water than the average homeowner, because it’s a big economic issue to them,” said Brian Werner, a spokesman for Northern Water, one of Colorado’s largest water distribution systems.
The shift to more efficient irrigation is happening, however slowly. Between 2003 and 2008, about 800,000 acres of U.S. farmland were equipped with efficient irrigation technologies, like drip irrigation systems.
But these new systems won’t likely be a panacea to the looming water shortages. A study of irrigated land in western Kansas found that when farmers change their irrigation systems, they switch to crops that require more water and bring in more money. That switch can negate the entire water savings.
Fagerberg Produce farm manager Rod Weimer has no regrets about installing drip irrigation. He’s using less water and the quality of his onion crop only gets better.
“If we want to survive, that’s what we’re going to have to do,” Weimer said. “It’s not cheap, but in the long run it’s going to pay off.”
For farmers on the Great Plains, surviving means doing more with less.