The Worth of Water

T. Morgan 3/22/2011

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World Water Day

Water. It’s an emotional word for people in all areas of the world. But for farmers, it’s a word that means life, because without water, their ground would be bare.

That’s partially why World Water Day is something people in agriculture don’t take lightly. Water is a vital resource in agriculture. And using it more efficiently is something the entire industry has been focused on for years – including farmers themselves.

A Farmer’s Perspective: The Challenges of Farming in Water-Stressed Conditions

Brent Rogers farms in Hoxie, Kansas, and to him, water is the single most important resource on their farm. He says no matter what seed he plants or fertilizer he uses, if the water isn’t there, nothing else matters.

“Water is the essence of life on our farmstead,” he said. “It brings about the grass that feed our cattle, and the corn that we make ethanol out of -- everything out there is sustained by water.”

Farming isn’t an easy job, especially in this area of Western Kansas. The arid climate doesn’t create a good recipe for generating rain. In fact, Rogers says he knows what a lack of water means because he deals with it almost every year. Rarely do farmers in Western Kansas have wet years. Instead, dry is a word they know all too well, especially this year.

“As of right now, we are extremely dry,” Rogers said. “We had less than 2 inches of moisture since the latter part of June 2010. Our moisture profile under some of our continuous crop ground is zero. Our pasture land is what’s really concerning right now because we don’t have any moisture to green up the grass.”

Due to Rogers’ farming practices, such as conservation tillage, he typically has enough moisture in the soil to get the crop started. But he says it’s the June--July timeframe, where temperatures jump from 90--100 degrees and stay for two weeks at a time, that crops need a good rain. And during those weeks, Rogers has had many sleepless nights worrying if rain would come.

Dealing with a Dwindling Natural Water Supply: The Ogallala Aquifer

Farmers in the Western Great Plains have irrigation to supplement the lack of rainfall, but even irrigation has become concerning to farmers. Benjamin Franklin once said “When the well is dry, we know the worth of the water.” Farmers are learning this first-hand. They have always understood the value of water, but now, some of their wells are running dry – literally.

“In our area we have the Ogallala Aquifer, and we are seeing some steep declines in the aquifer,” Rogers said. “I’m on the local groundwater district board, and we’re trying to be proactive about it and take an approach to save this water so future generations have it. “

The Ogallala Aquifer is the world’s largest underground body of fresh water. It runs from South Dakota to western Texas. Virtually all of its recharge comes from rainwater and snowmelt. But as Rogers pointed out, an arid climate is not conducive to precipitation – leaving minimal opportunities to recharge the aquifer.

“The best scenario I can give you [about the aquifer] is there are just too many straws in one cup,” Rogers said. “As farmers, we have some management decisions to make, and a lot of difficult decisions ahead.”

That’s why farmers in these areas are being proactive in their approach to saving water. Whether it’s applying water allocations in some areas or creating committees and boards that develop a long-term water strategy, farmers in Western Kansas understand the importance of helping to save and restore this valuable resource.

Rogers says although it can be challenging at times, farmers know it’s best to work together now than to suffer the consequences in the future.

“The future of farming in our area, and I think farming in general throughout the U.S., is very exciting,” Rogers said. “The world population is growing so much, and food is playing a very important role in the world economy right now, more so than it has in the past. And farmers are the key to that whole thing.”