The sustainability of COVID-19, supply chain challenges, and difficult labor markets made 2021 a test year for the Minnesota agricultural industry. Throwing the most severe drought in decades, and this growing season felt almost insurmountable.
Fortunately, for some crop farmers, there was one saving grace this season – the ability to irrigate – so our crops and our nation’s food supply had a fighting chance.
Minnesota has more than 600,000 acres of agricultural irrigation permits throughout the state. Especially in the rough, sandy soil region of central Minnesota, irrigation is used to ensure that crops cause the required amount of water to grow and thrive.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the University of Minnesota recommend a range of technology and data analysis tools to help farmers use exactly what they need and do it on a large scale. It used to be that the farmers had to drive from field to field so we could touch the ground and see how it was doing. Although many of us still do to some degree, we also have soil monitors that help us measure with a greater degree of precision the amount of moisture below the surface. And we can do that from anywhere.
Once we know what fields and how much water our fields need, our center pivot irrigation equipment distributes it efficiently. With improvements in technology, our center pivot irrigation systems are 90 to 95% efficient, which means that 90 to 95% of the supplied water is available to the crop and is not lost to evaporation and runoff.
In a growing season like 2021, where there were months without measurable rainfall, the ability to irrigate meant the difference between growing a crop that feeds an army, or a crop that feeds a squadron. Unfortunately, this year I saw on my farm on my own how harmful it would be to my business and community if I did not have the ability to water. Crops planted on the coarse textured sand without irrigation yielded 75% to 80% less than crops grown during irrigation, which we estimate cost our farm up north at $ 250,000.
So why does it all matter? Irrigated agriculture is crucial to the nation’s – and the world’s food supply. With the global population of almost 8 billion, there is no shortage of mouths to feed.
According to the state Department of Agriculture, Minnesota farmers are top producers in the state’s food supply chain, which ranks third in total crop revenue. We are among the top 10 growers in the country for sugar beets, oats, corn, green peas, wild rice, soybeans, spring wheat, rapeseed, corn, dry beans, flaxseed, sunflowers, potatoes and barley. We feed armies.
Fortunately, in Minnesota, our land and water are conducive to growing crops and raising animals. We as farmers know and understand that when we take care of the land, it takes care of us. When there is a drought, we have access to naturally replenishing water supplies that sustain our crops. And we as farmers have the technology, the data and the science to help us conserve and protect these resources at the same time.
This week, I am grateful to all farmers – those who grow crops and animals – for everything they do for our society, our food supply and our nation. I am grateful for the productive land, rich land and water resources. Most of all, I am grateful to be a farmer and hopeful of continuing farming for decades to come.
Jake Wildman is a farmer in the Bonanza Valley and president of the Irrigators Association of Minnesota. He lives near Glenwood, Minnesota.
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