Irrigation during the drought of 2012 is the difference maker


WOOSTER, Ohio — If your crops are doing well during this year’s drought, there’s a good chance you’ve received some pop-up rain showers or you’re working around the clock to irrigate.

Most of the rain that has fallen in Ohio the past couple months has been through scattered storms, and those “scattered” weather events have been hit-and-miss for producers across the state and the Midwest.

Drought status

According to the most recent data from the U.S. Drought Monitor, released July 10, 78 percent of Ohio is in a “moderate drought,” the far western counties are in “severe drought” and all 88 counties are a minimum of “abnormally dry.”

In Pennsylvania, the western half is abnormally dry (49 percent of the state) with the western-most counties in severe drought.

As a region, the Midwest is 83 percent abnormally dry and more than two-thirds is in moderate drought.

Crop savior

Dan Kamburoff, owner of Columbus Irrigation out of Ashland, Ohio, said the difference this year is irrigation. He’s driven across counties like Pickaway, in south central Ohio, where “the corn is two-and-a half-feet tall and brown as can be.”

Kamburoff and other irrigation dealers are seeing increased interest this year because of the drought and say for some crops — like fruits and vegetables — irrigation is practically a must.

“This year, if you don’t have irrigation, it’s just not going to happen,” he said.

Old equipment

Kamburoff is seeing a wide range of reaction from farmers, some who have not used irrigation for many years, or did so when their father’s or a previous generation owned the farm and have forgotten how the equipment works. Much of the older equipment also needs repaired.

“I’ve got guys calling me all of the time that they’re bringing equipment out of the barn that they haven’t used in eight or 10 years, or everything has dry-rotted on it,” he said.

He estimates business to be up by 40 percent over a normal year, and he’s added new customers in New York, Pennsylvania, Iowa, Wisconsin and Missouri — all affected by the same drought.

Mark Ackerman of the George F. Ackerman Co. near Toledo, has seen a similar increase. He also services a wide area, including all of Ohio.

High-value crops

Most irrigation done in Ohio is still for specialty crops like fruits and vegetables, but he said he’s seeing more alfalfa hay being irrigated.

And, he said some large dairy farms have been irrigating for years to get rid of wastewater, and now are using their systems to help replenish soil moisture.

Ackerman said some farmers actually predicted a dry growing season this year, because last year was a record wet year. Because weather patterns often result in opposite extremes from year to year, they planned ahead and bought new systems.

“Knowing that, some guys talked about the drought last year,” Ackerman said.

Kamburoff said the odds of needing irrigation for field crops are only about one or two years out of 10, and it usually makes more sense to rely on crop insurance. But he’s still seeing more irrigation, including Christmas tree farms.

Craig Mercer of Catalpa Grove Farm near Columbiana, just east of Salem, said he strives for balance in his irrigation program. He’s irrigating about 60 acres of produce this year and more heavily than in a normal year.

Perfect product

But he said with produce in particular, the customer wants a perfect ear of sweet corn and a near-perfect tomato — things that can be achieved only with well-maintained soil moisture.

“With vegetables, they expect a nice ear of corn filled to the tip,” and produce free of any blemishes from drought.

Mercer also grows about 140 acres of unirrigated field crops. If an ear of field corn doesn’t fill out perfectly, it will reduce yield, he said, but it’s not going to be shelled and processed before it hits the food market.

Drip irrigation

Drip irrigation — the slow and continued release of water directly to a plant’s roots — is becoming especially popular this year and is seen as a long-term form of insurance against drought damage.

“Drip irrigation is an insurance against periods of dry weather or drought like we are currently experiencing in parts of Ohio,” said Brad Bergefurd, an Ohio State University Extension horticulturist, in a released statement. “Specialty crops are such short-lived crops that they cannot go without the necessary 1 inch of water per week or else quality and yield will be lost.

He estimated growers who grow specialty crops can have more than $10,000 per acre invested in a crop before their first harvest. Irrigation is “insurance that the crop will be successful.”

Water supplies

Farmers who irrigate may be well ahead of their counterparts, but they share a similar concern — that their water reservoirs and groundwater supplies are steadily diminishing.

Ackerman said supplies are holding so far, but the water level is noticeably “dwindling.”

“If this continues on for another month, I think we’re done,” he said.

Mercer said in his part of the state — eastern Ohio — many of the wells are not strong enough to power larger irrigation equipment, which can easily demand 200 or more gallons of flow per minute.

“They’ve (water levels) dropped off and so far we’ve been OK, but if it stays like this that could become an issue,” he said.

One positive, Mercer noted, is that the early harvest of some crops like sweet corn means some acreage is being taken out of irrigation and lessening the burden. He estimates about 10 acres of his sweet corn are already harvested and therefore done being irrigated.

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