Many more Minnesota farms relying on irrigation for bigger yields

Irrigating farmland
A field of corn is irrigated near Clear Lake, Minn. Thursday, Sept. 5, 2013. The center-pivot irrigation system is one of 18 Alan Peterson uses on his Sherburne County farmland.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

The edge of one of Alan Peterson's corn fields outside of Clear Lake in Sherburne County is a dusty wasteland.

When he recently shucked an ear of corn on one of the few plants that have produced one, it had about a dozen kernels -- not surprising, given that a good rain last fell on his fields July 9.

"I've got 240 acres of irrigated corn and 100 acres of dry-land corn," Peterson said. "If I had 340 acres of all dry land, I wouldn't be combining hardly any corn this year."

Peterson has 18 irrigators, but they don't always reach the fields' edges. Anyone walking between the stalks toward the irrigator would see plants change color from yellow to green approaching ears of corn that are fat with rows of perfectly formed kernels. "There's an ear of corn that's gotten good moisture from the irrigator," he said.

He's one of a growing number of Minnesota farmers who are relying on irrigation. The number of irrigated farm fields in the state has surged in the past few years, and data compiled by state officials show many farmers hope to irrigate even more of their fields.

So far this year, farmers have applied for 466 irrigation permits -- more than twice the number of applications in all of last year.

The Minnesota DNR has received 466 applications for agricultural irrigation permits so far in 2013, compared to about 200 in all of last year. Seven counties in central Minnesota account for more than half of this year's applications. Those counties are highlighted in red.
Red: 20 or more permit applications
Orange: 10-19 permit applications
Yellow: 1-9 permit applications

Farmers in central Minnesota must cope with sandy soil that doesn't hold moisture very well. In the past, many counted on crop insurance to get them through drought years. Peterson, who is president of the Irrigators Association of Minnesota, said with the high crop prices in the past few years, it makes more financial sense to maximize yields through irrigation.

"Nine out of 10 years, if we're going to have a crop failure, it's drought," he said. "By putting my irrigator in there, that's my insurance policy. I don't know if I'd be farming if I hadn't had the ability to irrigate and count on a crop. You put a lot of money into this, and you want to get a crop out of it."

Dry corn
Alan Peterson, Sherburne County farmer and president of the Irrigators Association of Minnesota, stands among dry corn stalks in one of his fields near Clear Lake, Minn. Thursday, Sept. 5, 2013. The corn, which is not reached by irrigation at the edge of the field, is a product of the seasonal drought and the sandy soil in the area.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Data from the state Department of Natural Resources indicate many farmers have come to the same conclusion. Crop irrigation has been on the rise for several years, but this year saw an even bigger spike in permit applications.

Jason Moeckel, who oversees the monitoring and analysis of water resources for the state Department of Natural Resources, said the permits come in one at a time, but over time the number of farmers who want to irrigate fields can add up.

"All of a sudden now you've got 20 in an area," he said. "What's the cumulative effect? And that's the part that we're trying to get a better handle on."

The Legislature this year provided funding to accelerate an analysis of the state's groundwater.

Moeckel said there is not enough data yet to show whether irrigation is threatening groundwater supplies in some areas of the state. But permit applications in just seven central Minnesota counties - Stearns, Otter Tail, Pope, Morrison, Swift, Wadena and Kandiyohi -- account for more than half of all of this year's permits.

"What we're concerned about is the impact that's having on, or can have on surface water features, which is the expression of the groundwater," he said. "So as we divert that groundwater from where it was flowing to, to some other use, we're diverting it away from a surface water. It's beginning to express it enough that we're actually seeing it in our observations and our data, and that's where the concern is."

Center-pivot irrigator
A center-pivot irrigator waters a field of beans near Clear Lake, Minn. Thursday, Sept. 5, 2013. The sandy soil in Sherburne County and the unusally dry summer has kept irrigators busy in the area.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

As more data on groundwater becomes available, state lawmakers this year also have changed the way the DNR handles permits. Farmers who want to drill a new well must seek preliminary approval from the DNR, and there's a better chance officials will come back with some restrictions - like limiting the amount of water they can take from the well or requiring them to install a monitoring well to test for possible problems.

State Rep. Jean Wagenius, DFL-Minneapolis, who supported the changes, has pushed DNR officials to better manage the state's groundwater.

"The basic issue here is one of fairness. In some states it's first come first serve, and I think a lot of people think it's that way here too, but it's not," Wagenius said. "We share this resource in common and it has to be allocated fairly so that everybody gets their fair share."

Irrigation and water conservation are topics that come up frequently when Dan Martens, an assistant professor for the University of Minnesota Extension, talks with farmers in Stearns, Benton and Morrison counties.

Martens said the data being generated on groundwater will help, because farmers don't want to invest in a new well unless they know it's going to be reliable.

"I think everybody has a vested interest in knowing that how we're doing these things is sustainable and will work and if there are limitations or issues down the road, [that] we're aware of them and doing what we can to stay ahead of those issues before they become problems for us," he said.

Minnesotans can expect to see irrigators going strong in much of the state for the next several weeks. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, a majority of Minnesota's counties are experiencing moderate to severe drought.