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Let's talk about agricultural irrigation.......

by Freddie Lamm

Agricultural irrigation is under a lot of external pressure these days, but those of us working in irrigation know that not all of this pressure is deserved. At The Irrigation Association meeting in San Antonio in November 1996, the Agricultural Irrigation Division was formed to address some of these external pressures. At the meeting, we tentatively accepted the following mission statement for the Division:

To inform the public about the importance of agricultural irrigation, and to help the agricultural irrigation community to be better stewards of our natural resources and to enhance the public image of irrigated agriculture.

Although we may refine this statement as we proceed as a division, let's dissect this statement and see where we are heading and perhaps entice you to further our efforts.

What do we mean by the phrase "To inform the public about the importance of agricultural irrigation" ? The general public in the United States and much of the industrialized world is very detached from agricultural production in general, and even more so from irrigated agriculture. When the public sees water use percentages by irrigated agriculture as high as 80-95% of the total water use, they often read the words "waste," or "people going thirsty," or "huge irrigated enterprises driving out the family farm." We have the responsibility to rebut these charges in a courteous, but informed fashion. There’s a wealth of information available to support our position. If your lunch consumed thousands of gallons of water in production, is that really a waste? Probably not, if you are hungry. It is a myth that people are going thirsty because of irrigated agriculture, because agriculture cannot economically compete with the entities purveying water to the consumer. If the water is a scarce resource, economic forces will divert it to the most important need. Is irrigated agriculture driving out the family farm? Not according to economic studies of farming and communities in the Ogallala Aquifer region of western Kansas. These studies have shown that irrigation has allowed the overall farm size to be smaller than would be required for earning a living from a dryland operation. In addition, communities with surrounding irrigated agriculture are faring better economically than their dryland counterparts.

Let's now look at the next phrase "... to help the agricultural irrigation community to be better stewards of our natural resources....". Let’s face it, irrigation agriculture does utilize a lot of natural resources and sometimes has caused degradation and/or depletion of these resources. Rather than ignore the criticisms as some unfounded claim from some "crazy environmentalist," we need to acknowledge the claim, and make improvements where we can. I recently heard the claim, "Everyone is an environmentalist" and that has to be true, because we all have a certain level of environment quality we demand or are pursuing. The rub comes when you degrade my environment and I degrade yours. Compromise will probably be the course of least resistance in achieving a mutually acceptable result. While we are seeking common ground, the agricultural irrigation community still needs to look for more efficient and environmentally sound ways of irrigating.

The last phrase is "to enhance the public image of irrigated agriculture." We’ve touched on this issue in the previous paragraphs, but we do need to visit the topic further. We will benefit from stating our case in a courteous and professional fashion. It serves no productive purpose to attack those who are attacking our industry, they greatly outnumber us. We must listen to their charges and then, courteously and rationally, rebut the charges with facts. For their valid charges, we must acknowledge the problems and then seek solutions. Another public relations issue is the damage we do to ourselves by attacking another competitive facet of the industry. Surface irrigation immediately comes to mind as a group that has endured a lot of internal negative criticism. I doubt that we do irrigated agriculture any service by "beating up" on the perceived failings of surface irrigation. Worldwide, surface irrigation is the predominant methodology and probably will remain so in the foreseeable future. As a researcher doing work with microirrigation, surface, and sprinkler irrigation, I know that any system can be designed and managed in an efficient and uniform manner. The key is design and management . We could do ourselves a favor by competing on the basis of the design and management technologies our systems offer, rather than singling out an irrigation method as being bad.

In coming issues, I hope we can talk further about agricultural irrigation. Let’s discuss our talking points and methods of reaching our various audiences. The Agricultural Irrigation Division hopes to "market" its fine product of agricultural irrigation and to continue to "refine" its product for use in the 21st century. We need your help, whether you formally accept responsibilities in the Division or not. If you have ideas or comments, please feel free to contact me by mail, Email, fax, or phone. In the mean time, let’s talk about agricultural irrigation....

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 also serves as the Chair of The IA Agricultural Irrigation Division. Comments can be sent to postal address 105 Experiment Farm Road, Colby, Kansas 67701; Email: flamm@ksu.edu; Fax: 913-462-2315; or Phone: 913-462-6281.

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