Farmers talk about the costs of waterby Tim Post, Minnesota Public Radio
Farmers in the region are still dealing with drought, especially in parts of north central and central Minnesota that missed out on this week's rain. But there are some farmers in the driest parts of the state who expect to have a healthy crop at harvest time. They are irrigating. But the high cost of setting up such systems prevents many farmers from installing them.
Redwood Falls, Minn. — Keith Landwehr doesn't mind showing off the dry, dead corn at the edge of this 160 acre field he farms near Paynesville in central Minnesota.
"Basically it did not pollinate, there's not going to be any cobs on the corn plants which will basically equate to zero yield," he explains.
Landwehr isn't worried about this lost cause, because not far away, the rest of this field is thick with a deep-green sea of tall, healthy, irrigated corn.
But walk 20 feet and suddenly it's different.
"Right now we're standing under where the center pivot irrigation has travelled and the corn has almost doubled in height," Landwehr says. "You have one to two cobs per plant and a lot of yield potential here, the ground is nice and moist just a perfect conditions for a plant, this is what we like to see, if we could have everything like this it would be ideal."
The perfect conditions are thanks to the line of piping and sprinklers that loom over Landwehr's head. It's essentially a quarter-mile long metal pipe on wheels, driven in a circle by electric motors. It's anchored in the middle of the field over a well, that's why it's called a center-pivot system. It's not running now because Landwehr says this field has just the right amount of moisture.
So far this year this field has seen 10 inches of natural rain, well behind normal. But the sprinklers have added 15 more. Landwehr guesses that come harvest time, he'll see top yields. With drought conditions across much of central and north central Minnesota this summer, that's a prediction many Minnesota farmers who don't irrigate can only dream about.
"If we didn't have irrigation on this sandy soil, it would probably would not be harvested, with the lack of moisture, it probably would not be a matter of going out and harvesting," he says.
There are costs to irrigating. The water comes from a well, so Landwehr doesn't pay a water bill, but he does have to fill an electrical generator with a lot of diesel, and then there's broken parts to be fixed, and the occasional flat tire. But Landwehr says in the end, the higher yields he sees, in dry years as well as normal, more than makes up for the cost.
There are about 450,000 acres of irrigated land in Minnesota right now. It might seem that in a summer of record drought like this one, farmers would be clamoring to set up sprinklers in their un-irrigated fields.
That's not the case, according to Jerry Wright, an engineer for the University of Minnesota Extension service. Wright says for one thing, farmers with heavy, clay-like soil, hardly ever opt for irrigation systems, their soil is usually fine, even in moderately dry years. And farmers with sandy, porous soil probably already have irrigation systems out of necessity.
"So there's not going to be a major spike in new irrigated land in Minnesota, there might be in the Dakotas, but not in Minnesota," Wright says.
That's because while some of Minnesota is dealing with a drought, parts of South Dakota have some of the driest soil conditions in the country.
The cost of setting up one of these mammoth irrigating systems is another factor. Wright says the final price tag of a center pivot irrigation system can hover near $100,000 dollars.
At the annual farm show FarmFest near Redwood Falls, there's a piece of a sprinkler system set up for farmers to longingly gawk at as they pass by. This is a top-of-the-line irrigation system. It has a global positioning satellite unit and devices that measure the weather.
It's made by a company called Rainke. Rich Miller, one of the company's managers, says he's getting a lot more questions this year from farmers who are curious about irrigation. They may not be buying but they're asking a lot of questions.
"A lot of people think more about irrigation than they have in the last several years," Miller says.
After a few dry years, Miller's confident more farmers will consider investing in irrigation. He says one recent customer told him it's nice insurance to have these days.
- Morning Edition, 08/03/2006, 7:20 a.m.