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Irrigation at K-State Research and Extension

Let’s talk about agricultural irrigation.......

by Freddie Lamm

Each time we have talked, I have alluded to the fact that agricultural irrigation is under a lot of external pressure and scrutiny.internal said that one of the purposes of the IA Agricultural Irrigation Common Interest Group is "to enhance the public image of irrigated agriculture." I don't know how you feel, but I think we have considerable work yet to do. Often we read where large scale irrigated agriculture is doing this or that negative thing to the society and environment. Some of these stories are true, but that's not the focus of this discussion. The doctrine of fairness and equal time encourages us to tell about our success stories. Here's an irrigation success story that has happened in my state of Kansas.

Near the end of the Great Depression, the USDA Bureau of Agricultural Economics selected six communities across the United States for case studies to look at their culture and economic stability. One of these communities was Sublette, Kansas in Haskell County of southwest Kansas. (Taylor et. al 1940; Bell, 1942). One of the reasons it was picked was because of its great instability. In fact, it was considered the least stable of all the communities under study. Although the land is flat and the soil is good in Haskell County, precipitation is limited and highly variable. Bell (1942) concluded that the lack of precipitation was the primary factor causing the instability of this agriculturally based county. The situation looked bleak for Haskell County. Since its inception in 1887, the county population had varied up and down with the wet and dry climatic cycles (Williams and Bloomquist, 1996).

Twenty-five years later, in 1965, the county was studied again (Mays, 1968) to see what changes had occurred. Whereas the earlier study had seen great instability, Mays concluded that the situation had improved significantly. Looking in from the outside, the biggest apparent change was the adoption of irrigated agriculture. Only two irrigation wells existed in Haskell County in 1939. In 1965, the number of irrigated acres totaled 204,000 acres or 55% of a county with 372,000 acres of farm land (Mays, 1968). Several factors contributed to this increase. These included improvements in pumping technology, the development of the Hugoton natural gas field and the resulting inexpensive energy source, the large saturated thickness associated with the Ogallala aquifer and the flat topography suitable to surface irrigation (Williams and Bloomquist, 1996).

Haskell County was revisited for study again in 1993-94 (Williams and Bloomquist, 1996). Irrigation continued to play a large role in the county with nearly 213,000 acres irrigated in 1995. The population nearly doubled in this small Kansas county between 1940 and 1990 and increased each year during the period. This is in contrast to population reductions in many rural counties in other parts of the United States during this period. It also contrasts quite sharply with the assertion we sometimes hear that irrigation has wreaked havoc on the rural communities. Approximately 40% of the population was employed in the agricultural sector in 1990 (Williams and Bloomquist, 1996). We also hear in a negative sense that irrigation has driven out the family farms, and that large scale irrigation has taken over. Not so in Haskell County. While the number of farms nationwide decreased by approximately 65% between 1940 and 1992, in Haskell County the decrease was only approximately 35%. Nationwide, average farm size increased approximately 275% during the same period, while in Haskell County the increase was only approximately 170% (Williams and Bloomquist, 1996). Per capita income in Haskell County was also above the national average in 1991. Clearly, irrigation has made a positive difference in the standard economic indicators of Haskell County.

Some may say, "But at what cost?" That's a question that could be answered with "But, oh what a benefit to a previously dying county." Isn't it just as appropriate to assess the cost/benefit relationships in a rural setting as it is in an urban setting? Natural resources are being utilized. The Ogallala aquifer is subject to overdraft. However, the people of Haskell County are not incognizant of this fact. They are making adjustments. Improved irrigation management and improved irrigation systems are being utilized. Irrigators are involved in educational and demonstration activities designed to make more efficient use of the water resource. In 1975, there were nearly 50,000, 162,500 and 17,500 acres of open ditch, gated pipe and center pivot sprinkler irrigation in Haskell County, respectively. By 1995, open ditch irrigation had virtually disappeared, and center pivot sprinklers were estimated to cover approximately 40% of the irrigated acres. Reported irrigation water applied on corn in 1995 was 15% less than in 1990. More reductions are likely to occur. The people of Haskell County recognize a less intensive irrigated agriculture may come someday. Fortunately, there is the time and opportunity to make a smooth transition since Haskell County has some of the largest saturated thicknesses in the Ogallala aquifer in Kansas. Irrigation has had a positive effect on Haskell County and will continue to do so well into the next millenium.

Perhaps, you have a better irrigation success story. That doesn't upset me in the least bit. In fact, encouraging you to develop and express your irrigation success story is the purpose of this discussion. The goal of the Agricultural Irrigation Common Interest Group is to get our message out to the public. That means our stories have to go beyond this magazine. Here's one success story we can tell. I'm sure you have others. If you don't feel comfortable writing or speaking for the public, don't worry, the Agricultural Irrigation Group will help. We just have to know your ideas. Even a small tidbit may mesh well with another tidbit from another region for an overall story. Please feel free to contact me by mail, Email, fax, or phone. In the mean time, let's talk about agricultural irrigation....

References Cited:

Bell, E. H. 1942. Culture of a contemporary rural community: Sublette, Kansas. Rural Life Studies, No. 2. Washington, DC. : USDA Bureau of Ag. Economics.

Mays, W. E. 1968. Sublette revisited: Stability and change in a rural Kansas community after a quarter century. New York, NY: Florham Park Press.

Taylor, C. C., C. Loomis, J. Provinse, J. E. Huett Jr., and K. Young. 1940. Cultural, structural, and social-psychological study of selected American farm communities: Field manual. Washington, DC. : USDA Bureau of Ag. Economics.

Williams, D. D. and L. E. Bloomquist. 1996. From Dust Bowl to green circles: A case study of Haskell, County, Kansas. Bulletin 662. Kansas Ag. Expt. Station, Manhattan, KS. 44 pp.

Freddie Lamm is an Associate Professor for Kansas State University conducting agricultural irrigation engineering research at the KSU Northwest Research-Extension Center, Colby, Kansas. He is the Immediate Past Chair of The IA Agricultural Irrigation Common Interest Group. Comments can be sent to postal address 105 Experiment Farm Road, Colby, Kansas 67701; Email: flamm@ksu.edu; Fax: 785-462-2315; or Phone: 785-462-6281.