In Alabama, only 15 percent of the land currently available for farming is irrigated, which translates to a large loss in revenue for the state’s agricultural industry.
Brenda Ortiz, associate professor in the College of Agriculture’s Department of Crop, Soil and Environmental Sciences and agronomist with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, hopes to increase irrigation adoption and close the irrigation knowledge gap in Alabama.
“Farmers often struggle in deciding when and how much to irrigate, and this prevents them from achieving their full yield potential,” Ortiz said. “For many Alabama farmers, irrigation is a new practice, so they are looking for training, technology and information to support their decisions.”
Ortiz and other College of Agriculture faculty members, with the help of a $946,684 grant from the Conservation and Innovation Program of the Natural Resources and Conservation Service, have started a project that focuses on increasing the adoption of climate and water-smart irrigation practices among Tennessee Valley farmers in Alabama and Tennessee.
“This grant focuses on the demonstration of practices that already have been proven or tested,” Ortiz said. “The project will be conducted with farmers in their fields. Research might be included, but the majority of the work is focused on the demonstration of new and innovative practices.”
Working with Auburn are the USDA-ARS-National Soil Dynamics Laboratory, the University of Tennessee, Alabama A&M University, the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, NRCS Alabama and three cooperating farmers.
A second, $106,208 grant from a partnership with the Flint River Soil and Water Conservation District in Georgia involves integrating precision irrigation technologies to demonstrate variable-rate irrigation systems in southeast Alabama and southwest Georgia.
“There is an increasing interest in expanding irrigation, and state agencies are looking for data on how much water a crop needs that can be supplemented by irrigation and on the best irrigation practices farmers can adopt to increase water-use efficiency while maintaining or increasing yields and protecting the environment,” Ortiz said.
Of the estimated 1,022 farms scheduling irrigation in the state, only 8 percent use available technologies while 40 percent still rely on empirical methods like feeling the soil.
“To apply water where and when it’s needed, we will demonstrate variable-rate irrigation, allowing us to apply different water amounts over a single field,” Ortiz said. “We also are demonstrating the use of soil-sensor technology to quantify and determine how much and when we need water.”
The Ortiz-led project will demonstrate the current Alabama irrigation model: withdrawing water from creeks or streams and storing it in irrigation ponds/reservoirs for irrigation use during the summer.