I thought these two articles were very encouraging in showing that farmers in the West (even the ones growing alfalfa) can invest in improved irrigation efficiency and have a positive impact on their bottom line. With all the recent bad news about climate change and diminishing water supplies it's going to be necessary for farmers to adapt and alter their operations if they want to survive as farmers and if we want to continue to grow crops locally, here in the West.
The first of these articles appeared in the Western Farm Press last month and describes a farming family in Central Arizona that started growing alfalfa in fields where they had already installed drip tape and found their yields were enough higher than their neighbors that they claim a system like it can pay for itself in 3 to 5 years.
I confess, I don't personally know enough about irrigated farming or growing alfalfa to properly evaluate these claims, but what I have always heard is that it just isn't economical to install high-efficiency irrigation systems in alfalfa fields because it's considered such a low value crop. Maybe higher prices for alfalfa in recent years have altered the equations sufficiently to make things like drip tape a good investment. But I think the key in this story is that the drip system was already installed in the field for growing things like cotton and wheat (not really high value crops themselves in most years, but probably better than alfalfa). The other thing the story doesn't discuss is the overall effect on consumptive use of water with the drip vs. flood irrigation. Some investigations have indicated higher consumptive use with drip, meaning that any savings in overall water use are illusory because the return flow component of flood irrigation is lost. But this clearly is the most efficient way to irrigate crops.
The second article appeared this week in the Fresno Bee (and I lifted it from Aquafornia - thanks Aqua Blog maven!). The article discusses farmers in the Central Valley of California switching to center pivot irrigation systems to get more crop per slowly shrinking drop of water available. Most farmers growing row crops in that area have always used flood irrigation, probably because there has historically been a reliable supply of cheap water available so there was zero incentive to switch to higher efficiency systems. Some farmers are now finding it worth their while to make investments (and apparently finding sympathetic bankers in the area willing to finance those investments - a very important and often overlooked point) in higher efficiency irrigation systems.
These articles show the ability of farmers to adapt to changing conditions and remain profitable in their farming operations. It would be very interesting to look at how many farmers are actually making changes in these difficult times because all you seem to hear about are how farmers are being forced out of business because the water isn't there and they just can't cut it without intervention to supersede environmental laws and more taxpayer funded water storage projects. The Pacific Institute released a report last year outlining steps that could be taken by farmers to implement water conservation measures potentially freeing up more than 3 million acre-feet of water in Central California. I saw a fair amount of criticism of that report as being unreasonable in its assumptions. Obviously there are efficiency gains to be made out there because these articles show that it is happening. But I don't think anybody really knows the extent to which it could occur, or how much it might cost. These would be good things to know.