Published on 02/16/05

Farmland irrigation growth slowing, survey says

By Brad Haire
University of Georgia

The number of irrigated cropland acres in Georgia is growing, but at a much slower pace than three decades ago, according to a University of Georgia farm survey.

About 1.49 million irrigated acres of cropland are in Georgia, according to the UGA Extension Service 2004 Irrigation Survey. This is about 33,000 acres more than in 2000, the last year the survey was conducted.

Corn, cotton and peanuts account for 76 percent of the total irrigated acres. Turf acres under irrigation have more than doubled over the past decade to about 38,500 acres.

Accounting for 49 percent, electric-powered irrigation systems outnumber diesel-powered systems for the first time.

This can be attributed to higher fuel costs, said Kerry Harrison, a UGA Extension Service irrigation expert. Smaller systems, too, are being put into smaller fields. These systems are more easily powered by electric motors.

Georgia had only 145,000 irrigated acres in 1970, the first year of the survey. The largest increase since then was between 1977 and 1980. Land under irrigation grew from 592,000 acres to nearly 1 million during this time.

Between 1995 and 1998, irrigated acres grew by about 70,000. It grew by the same amount between 1995 and 1998.

Georgia has 3.5 million to 4 million acres of cropland, according to the Georgia Agricultural Statistics Service. Not all of this land is good for irrigation. Most suitable large fields now have irrigation, Harrison said.

In 1998, Georgia's Environmental Protection Division placed a moratorium in coastal Georgia on the well permits farmers need to put in a new irrigation system. EPD placed a moratorium on permits in the Flint River Basin in southwest Georgia in 1999. This has slowed the increase in irrigated acres.

Farmers will probably keep putting in new irrigation, Harrison said, but not at the rate seen in the 1970s and '80s.

Improved technology over the past few decades has allowed farmers to produce more per acre, Harrison said.

"The last potentially limiting factor a farmer has each year as far as production is concerned is water," he said. "Irrigation for now is one of the cheapest ways to ensure crops get enough water."

How much water farmers put on crops varies across the state and even within a county, Harrison said. It depends on how much a farmer wants to spend compared to the potential benefit.

"Irrigation is just another tool farmers use to stabilize their production," he said. "And how a farmer uses that tool depends on the farmer's economic situation and management practices."

The UGA Extension Service survey is based on information from UGA Extension Service agents in agricultural counties. Other estimates differ from the survey's findings.

EPD estimates 2.1 million acres, based on the number of acres farmers write on applications when applying for well permits. GASS figures Georgia has 750,000 irrigated acres, based on farmer surveys.

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