Should Irrigation-Fed Farming Increase in the Deep South?

Hamid Moradkhani, director of the Center for Complex Hydrosystems Research at the University of Alabama

Irrigation-fed farming is not as commonplace as the average person probably thinks it is, especially not in the humid and wet South.

Seventeen western states in the U.S. make up three-quarters of all irrigated farmed acres, and in California nearly half of all farmland is irrigated, according to the latest federal data.

In contrast, only about 4 percent of farmland is irrigated in Alabama, but the state is also the fourth wettest in the nation.

A study being conducted by University of Alabama researchers will take a look at whether more irrigation could lead to a more robust agriculture industry. The four-year, $1.75 million grant will examine how a transition from rain-fed farming to irrigation-fed farming could impact harvests and water use, providing data to policymakers considering initiatives to encourage irrigation.

“As agriculture plays a significant role in the economies of the Deep South, one potential option for their economic resurgence is through a drastic increase in agricultural productivity,” said lead principal investigator Hamid Moradkhani, the Alton N. Scott Endowed Professor of Engineering and director of UA’s Center for Complex Hydrosystems Research.

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The study will look at the Mobile River Basin, the 44,600 square miles that drain into Mobile Bay that includes central Alabama and portions of eastern Mississippi and northwest Georgia. The researchers will examine how the linked resources of food, water and energy within the basin would be impacted through a transition to irrigation farming.

The team will use computer modeling to determine how various levels of irrigation would affect agriculture productivity, energy production, water supply and waterway navigation. Researchers also will work with 60 farmers within the basin to evaluate the openness to transitioning to irrigation, evaluating the influence climatology, sociology and economic factors have on farmers’ decisions.

Although it could be an expensive transition for an existing farm, irrigation can ease farms through droughts and yield greater harvests, even in normal years, with great economic benefits.

“This project will help identify the barriers and incentives needed to spur transition to irrigation-fed farming in the Deep South, enabling informed decision-making by lawmakers,” Moradkhani said.

Along with Moradkhani, the team includes UA researchers Mukesh Kumar, Hamed Moftakhari, Glenn Tootle and Nicholas Magliocca, and Auburn University Professor of Agricultural Economics and Rural Sociology Denis Nadolnyak.

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