Some items to consider before taking to heart Jack Dixon’s guest column of Aug. 3 about how farmers could conserve more water.
As a third-generation farmer in Pinal County, may I address four separate issues?
1. America does not identify farmers as locusts. A recent Gallup poll concluded that the public considers farming and agriculture as positive, clear leaders. Calling tenant farmers “locusts” is insulting to the character and soul of growers. Not to mention stating that farmers are “raping” the land of water, then moving on, is just wrong. No one has used up all the water on their land and then just moved on. Most of the farmers in the area are multigenerational farmers including my family. We have been on the same land for years and we’re conserving soil and water to effectively farm into the future.
2. The addition of irrigation wells is to support the portion of lost supply from the system due to the drought. The recent author doesn’t seem to understand that in these irrigation districts there have been many wells that have been taken off-line and are no longer pumping groundwater. Within the Maricopa-Stanfield Irrigation and Drainage District alone, there were at one time 400 wells that were in use and that number today is 140. New wells will never produce more water, in fact ag is pumping far less water than what agriculture used to pump back in the ‘80s and will never come close to using as much groundwater as before. Most of these wells that will be drilled are to replace CAP water that is diminishing from agriculture.
Another thing the article bemoans is that irrigation districts are looking to drill more wells in the Pinal County growing region. These wells aren’t going to increase the number of acres we farm. Instead, the wells that will be drilled are to replace CAP water that is diminishing from agriculture. Without them, the shortages on the Colorado River will mean that we lose half of our production capacity overnight with nothing to replace it. But even then, new wells will never produce more water. Drought will require us to reduce acreage. And when we do, air quality will become an even bigger issue in the county as farmers have to fallow farmland due to water shortages.
3. Drip irrigation is not the answer for every acre of agricultural land. The article also suggests that if every farmer installed drip irrigation, all our problems would be solved. The fact about efficient irrigation systems is that there has been a lot of money, in the millions I am sure, for irrigation improvements over the last 50 to 60 years. This has allowed farmers to become more efficient with their water usage and produce better and more abundant crops of food and fiber. And while drip irrigation and overhead sprinklers are efficient, so is flood irrigation. Flood irrigation systems are updated with laser leveling equipment to maintain efficiency. In fact, I know people that installed drip irrigation on level basin fields that after several years took out the drip as it was no more efficient than the original flood irrigation system. I have discussed this with many people over the years and in some cases drip irrigation is not the answer. In some cases, irrigation systems limit growers to the crop rotation that can be planted.
For a tenant farmer to invest in a drip system on rented ground is a sizable investment due to the cost and recovery time of the investment. Last time I looked it was about $2,000 per acre to install drip. A grower just can’t make that investment unless he has a 20-plus-year lease on a farm and a guaranteed water supply.
With different soils and cropping systems, drip is not necessarily the answer to irrigation or water usage efficiency. On my farm it has been a positive experience with a 35% water reduction along with reduced fertilizer, herbicide and insecticide usage. This system has increased our yields and proven positive for our farm. But that won’t be the case for everyone and not everyone will be able to afford to install the system.
4. Finally, alfalfa is a vital rotational crop for agriculture. Its fibrous root system and nitrogen fixing capacities renovate the soil and allow for successful cotton, corn, sorghum and grain crop rotations. The article criticizes the fact that we grow alfalfa in the desert. Alfalfa has been one of the bright stars for growers related to profitability the past few years. Especially when compared to durum wheat or cotton in Pinal County. Not all alfalfa is exported and without competition for the crop from the export market, we would not have the profit margins that alfalfa provides. And at least these foreign interests are not buying up the land to produce feed for export like they have in other parts of the state. The argument of exportation of water is moot.
Unfortunately, water has become a political issue since the groundwater code was written in 1980. What agriculture does not need at this point is more people voicing opinions that are not factual.
Let’s not start calling out for restricting the growing of crops and limit growers to the diversity or options of what they grow.
People need to understand that if it was not for agriculture, most of us would not be here today. It was Arizona agriculture that actually pushed for the funding to build the infrastructure for our current water systems in this great state. And it is agriculture that keeps food in your grocery store shelves and on your tables.
Paul “Paco” Ollerton is a longtime Pinal County farmer.