Some experts believe the answer lies in better irrigation for the Southeast, particularly in Alabama.
While its Gulf Coast neighbors have millions of acres of irrigated land, fewer than 200,000 acres in Alabama are irrigated. There are another 2 million acres of fertile land in Alabama that could see a boom in production with irrigation in place, and that land requires far less water to farm than in the West.
Experts said problems elsewhere may soon turn national attention to Alabama’s underused land.
“Alabama has about 120,000 to 130,000 acres irrigated,” Auburn University professor and extension specialist Sam Fowler said. “I’d be very surprised if that number doesn’t double pretty quickly.”
Many state farmers have been reluctant to invest in irrigation systems even after the state offered tax credits to offset the initial costs for systems that can pay for themselves in as few as five years. Fowler said more than half of the state’s farmers rent their land instead of owning it and are less likely to commit to a system for that reason.
Age also plays a role. The average age in Alabama is over 60, and younger farmers are more willing to make long-term investments, Fowler said.
And unlike Alabama’s irrigation-heavy neighbors, farmers here often don’t have easy access to shallow groundwater.
That’s led to a culture built on dry-land farming, and Alabama Cooperative Extension System specialist Jim Langcuster said that’s a mindset that can be hard to change.
Still, it’s a change that’s starting to happen with the arrival of new technology and younger farmers, Fowler said.
“There’s increased interest in irrigation,” he said. “We’re having the older generation passing the farm down to their descendants.”
The stakes could be high.
If the situation continues to worsen and the nation doesn’t replace the lost production in the Southwest and Midwest, it may have to look to other countries for food.
U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Mobile) said it’s “a very significant matter.” But farmers here may face a catch-22 — to have the best chance to get more federal funding for irrigation, the state needs to have more irrigation in place.
“I found when we were working on the farm bill this year that states got more money if they were already irrigating more, instead of having irrigation money from the federal government that would encourage states that are behind to catch up,” Sessions said.
As Alabama builds its irrigation system, experts here want to make sure they don’t repeat mistakes that helped drain water resources in the Southwest.
Richard McNider of the University of Alabama in Huntsville, one of the state’s leading agriculture experts, has studied the effects of climate change and overuse in the Southwest and Midwest. He heads the Alabama University Irrigation Initiative, a coalition of professors who are working on a comprehensive agricultural irrigation plan for the state.
McNider said with a sustainable plan for how to use the state’s watersheds, Alabama irrigation would be a far cheaper option for federal investment in the long term.
“Trying to spend huge amounts of money for water to put on cotton in the California or Arizona area is simply not the right efficiency approach for the government to take when ... putting that same investment in the East could allow us to actually take on the cotton production and the rice production and things like that,” McNider said.
In the meantime, Alabama’s wildly varying weather patterns and poor groundwater access have created a fragile farming environment, and even a short drought can be devastating.
“We get by, but about every five years we lose a major crop because of drought,” Sessions said.
That could change with the increased focus on irrigation.
“There’s no doubt that irrigation can make farming much less risky, and it can be profitable,” Fowler said.