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By Jonathan Kuntson, Published September 14 2012

Drought renews irrigation interest

CAVALIER, N.D. – Robert Vivatson smiles at the memory of his initial foray into irrigation in the mid-1990s.

“We had a traveling gun (wheeled cart with attached sprinkler) and 40 acres of irrigated potatoes. It was trial-and-error,” said Vivatson, a veteran Cavalier farmer.

Since then, through years wet and dry, Vivatson – current president of the North Dakota Irrigation Association – has expanded the use of irrigation in his farming partnerships.

Today, his operation in northeast North Dakota irrigates roughly 1,300 acres of wheat, soybeans and potatoes with increasingly sophisticated systems.

“We’ve taken some marginal land, put water on it and gotten good returns,” he said.

This year, for instance, some of the irrigated land likely will yield 40 bushels or better of soybeans. “Without irrigation, we might have gotten 10 bushels,” Vivatson said.

“The economic impact of irrigation is huge,” he said. “Typically, the revenue generated (on irrigated land) is three or four times greater than what a dryland crop would be.”

Irrigation in the region has been on the back burner during the region’s long wet cycle. The region has been so wet some years that many irrigation systems weren’t even turned on.

But the drought of 2012 almost certainly will generate renewed interest in irrigation across the Upper Midwest, particularly if the fall is dry, officials say.

Producers likely will start to show more interest after harvest is finished, says Milt Lindvig, a representative of the North Dakota Irrigation Association.

Not all farmers who want to start irrigating will be able to, irrigation officials say. Would-be irrigators must apply to regulators and evaluating the applications can take months or even years.

Sometimes the applications are rejected because the soil type or water quality or both aren’t suitable for irrigation. And sometimes regulators delay making a decision until they have a better long-term understanding of how much water can be withdrawn safely from the proposed source, officials say.

“We had quite a time getting (our) water permits. It’s tough,” Vivatson said. “But I have to say, once we explained our case, the State Water Commission (which issues permits) was very supportive.”

There are untapped irrigation possibilities that farmers should try to identify and use, Lindvig said.

For instance, some of the water used for irrigation in Vivatson’s farming operation comes from a small, previously unknown aquifer.

The farming operation also irrigates with water captured in flood-control dams and pumped into holding ponds.

“Nobody wants this water in the spring,” he said. “Rather than send it up to Hudson Bay (via the Red River of the North), let’s find a way to store it and use it.”

His farming operation uses 13 or 14 center pivots, five or six of which “run totally off of spring runoff water. The rest are partially run that way,” he said.

Vivatson, who has held leadership positions with Moorhead-based American Crystal Sugar, grows sugar beets but doesn’t irrigate them.

“We haven’t put any sugar beets under water. It seems to work better without doing it.”

Irrigation generally is best for long-season crops, those harvested in September or later. Such crops need considerable moisture in late July and August, when rainfall often is scarce.

Irrigation also generally works with high-value crops such as potatoes. Vivatson says he began irrigating initially because Simplot, which operates a potato processing plant in Grand Forks, announced it wouldn’t take any more dryland potatoes.

Jonathan Knutson writes for Agweek

While the returns on irrigated land are high, “the expenses are much higher, too. Being very conservative, I think you have $3,000 (in expenses) on an acre of irrigated potatoes,” Vivatson said.

Vivatson, like other irrigation supporters, said the practice benefits local communities and agribusiness in general.

“There’s a lot of dollars go to the fertilizer guy, the irrigator guy, the people doing the work,” he said.

In North Dakota, about 272,000 acres are irrigated, according to the state Irrigation Association. That’s less than 1 percent of the state’s 39.6 million acres in farms.

Groundwater and surface water each account for about half of the water allocated for farm irrigation in the state, although all the allocated water isn’t always used, according to the state Water Commission. Minnesota has 506,357 irrigated acres, or about 1.8 percent of the state’s 26.9 million acres in farms, according to state officials.

Science and legwork

Historically, there have been widespread concerns that farm irrigation harms nearby supplies of drinking water.

Nitrogen, commonly applied to crops to add nutrients, is the big worry. Too much nitrogen, in the form of nitrate, in drinking water can hurt infants and young livestock, according to information from the U.S. Geological Survey.

Agriculturalists in years past made mistakes with nitrogen application. But farmers and others learned from those mistakes, Vivatson said.

“There’s a tremendous amount of science behind this (modern irrigation practices),” Vivatson said. “If we use science in this whole thing, we probably will not err. But if we go with emotion or don’t use science, I’ll think we’ll have some troubles.”

Irrigation requires a big commitment, Vivatson says.

Would-be irrigators need to determine if their soil is suitable for irrigation and explore potential sources of water. They also need to learn whether other farmers have prior claims to that water, Vivatson said.

“Then, after you’ve done the legwork, you have to look into the economics – the kind of crops you might want to grow,” he said.