Published on 02/28/01

Irrigated Acres Slightly Up in Georgia

To battle dry conditions, many farmers rely on irrigation systems to provide water to grow their crops. However, Georgia farmers only slightly increased their irrigation usage during the recent drought, according to University of Georgia Extension Service experts.

Between 1998 and 2000, the number of irrigated acres in the state increased about 2 percent, according to the UGA Extension Service 2000 Irrigation Survey. Georgia now has about 1.5 million acres of irrigated farmland -- a 31,000-acre increase since the last survey in 1998.

Leveling Out

The recent increase is modest compared to the mid-`80s and early-`90s. During that period, irrigated acreage grew about 20 percent each year, said Kerry Harrison, an irrigation engineer with the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

Farmers do consider periods of drought when planning their irrigation management. However, Harrison doesn't expect a dramatic increase in irrigated acres in the future, despite the current drought.

The reason is simple economics.

"We've about irrigated all the land in the state that is profitable for the farmers," Harrison said.

Half Wet, Half Dry

According to the survey, about half of the total crop acreage in Georgia is under some type of irrigation system. About 75 percent of these systems are center pivots, which are larger systems that rotate in a circle in the field.

It's no surprise that two-thirds of the irrigation used in Georgia goes toward watering major state crops, such as corn, cotton and peanuts. But vegetables had the largest increase in irrigated acreage. Since 1998, irrigated vegetable acreage increased 70 percent, helping Georgia become one of the leading vegetable producing states.

Growing More Vegetables

All commercially grown vegetables in Georgia are irrigated. Most farmers use a drip system for vegetable production. A hose with tiny holes is buried inside the vegetable bed. As water is piped through the hose, drops of water drip out watering the plants.

Harrison said the move towards more irrigated vegetables will continue. With major commodity prices low, many farmers are trying to find ways to make their land profitable, and established vegetable farmers are growing more acres.

"Farmers are branching out into new areas," Harrison said. "They are looking at alternative crops like some vegetables: crops that are as profitable on the same or less acreage."

The water sources for irrigation systems continue the same trend as in the past. Ground water supplies about 61 percent and surface water about 38 percent of the agriculture water in the state. The other 1 percent comes from wastewater sources.

The irrigation survey was conducted by county Extension agents in all of Georgia's 159 counties.

Brad Haire is the former news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.