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Elizabeth Dunbar, Published September 15 2013

Number of Minnesota farms using irrigation surges

The edge of one of Alan Peterson’s corn fields outside of Clear Lake in Sherburne County is a dusty wasteland.

When he recently shucked an ear of corn on one of the few plants that have produced one, it had about a dozen kernels – not surprising, given that a good rain last fell on his fields July 9.

“I’ve got 240 acres of irrigated corn and 100 acres of dry-land corn,” Peterson said. “If I had 340 acres of all dry land, I wouldn’t be combining hardly any corn this year.”

Peterson has 18 irrigators, but they don’t always reach the fields’ edges. Anyone walking between the stalks toward the irrigator would see plants change color from yellow to green approaching ears of corn that are fat with rows of perfectly formed kernels. “There’s an ear of corn that’s gotten good moisture from the irrigator,” he said.

He’s one of a growing number of Minnesota farmers who rely on irrigation. The number of irrigated farm fields in the state has surged in the past few years, and data compiled by state officials show many farmers hope to irrigate even more of their fields.

So far this year, farmers have applied for 466 irrigation permits – more than twice the number of applications in all of last year.

Farmers in central Minnesota must cope with sandy soil that doesn’t hold moisture very well. In the past, many counted on crop insurance to get them through drought years. Peterson, who is president of the Irrigators Association of Minnesota, said with the high crop prices in the past

few years, it

makes more financial sense to maximize yields through irrigation.

“Nine out of 10 years, if we’re going to have a crop failure, it’s drought,” he said. “By putting my irrigator in there, that’s my insurance policy. I don’t know if I’d be farming if I hadn’t had the ability to irrigate and count on a crop. You put a lot of money into this, and you want to get a crop out of it.”

Data from the state Department of Natural Resources indicate many farmers have come to the same conclusion. Crop irrigation has been on the rise for several years, but this year saw an even bigger spike in permit applications.

Jason Moeckel, who oversees the monitoring and analysis of water resources for the state Department of Natural Resources, said the permits come in one at a time, but over time the number of farmers who want to irrigate fields can add up.

“All of a sudden now you’ve got 20 in an area,” he said.