MACON, Ga. (AP) - Farmers don't just pray for rain anymore.
A rapidly increasing number are turning to irrigation to cope with consistently dry growing seasons.
When Chuck Ellis became the extension agent in Dooly County 31 years ago, he estimated less than 5 percent of row crops were irrigated. Today he puts that number at over 60 percent.
"The increase in irrigation has been dramatic in the past few years," he said.
Dooly County is the largest row crop producing county in the state, with about $100 million in agriculture production in 2010 and $140 million in 2011. The growth in irrigation, Ellis said, has helped ensure more consistent production.
Twiggs County extension agent Roosevelt McWilliams gave similar growth estimates for irrigation in that county, with close to half of farmland irrigated now compared to just a small percentage years ago.
"With irrigation, at least you will break even," McWilliams said.
David Floyd farms 4,000 acres in Twiggs and Bleckley counties with his father and brother, and they have invested heavily in irrigation. They try to add at least one new system a year and this year added two. He said about 30 percent of their land is irrigated, but much of it is leased, and they irrigate none of that because it would mean digging a well on someone else's land.
Of the 2,300 acres they own, 1,400 are irrigated. That's 61 percent, compared to less than 10 percent in the late '90s. If it weren't for irrigation, Floyd said, they would be out of business.
His father, Sam, has been farming all of his life and didn't install his first irrigator until about 20 years ago. Now, Sam said, it's essential.
"It looks like it's going to be the only way," he said. "We haven't made hardly anything on dry land in five years."
He said he is strongly considering dropping dry land farming completely and only planting the irrigated land in the future.
Irrigation isn't cheap
If anyone wonders why all farmers aren't irrigating, the reason is that it's really expensive. David Floyd said just a standard-size system, with one well and an irrigator, can cost more than $150,000, then there is significant cost just in operating it. A typical irrigator, which works on a pivot, would make a circle that covers 160 acres, but that's only if it can make it all the way around. In many cases, due to the topography or power lines running across the field, the irrigator can't make a full circle.
In those cases the irrigator may only make it half way, then it would move back and fourth in what farmers call a "windshield wiper" effect. So for the same investment it would take to irrigate 160 acres, they may only be able to irrigate half that. The benefit is that the same amount of water can be put out in half the time.
It used to be that most farmers used diesel engines to power irrigators, but now many are turning to electricity because of the fuel and maintenance cost of diesel. As of this year, the Floyds have converted all of their irrigators to electricity, which David Floyd estimated costs about 30 percent less to operate than diesel.
Ellis said the power company in Dooly County hooked up 40 irrigator systems this year, with some of those conversions from diesel and others new systems.
Impact on groundwater
Every irrigation well, as well as surface water withdrawals for irrigation, requires a permit from the Georgia Environmental Protection Division. Whether farmers are approved for a permit, said state geologist Jim Kennedy, depends largely on the specific location. He said agricultural irrigation can have an impact on surface streams in certain locations, and it may depend on the aquifer the water would come from. Farmers may be required to drill a deeper well to reduce any impact. A permit may also be denied if there are multiple agricultural wells within the immediate area.
In some cases, if there is concern about a permit request, a computer model is done to determine the impact it would have, Kennedy said.
According to figures provided by the EPD, in 2008 the state issued 245 permits for agricultural water withdrawal, including surface water permits. In 2011 it issued 379.
Sam Floyd said he knows one farmer who had a permit denied this year, and he said the permits seem to be getting harder to come by. But Kennedy said it really depends on the location.
Floyd said even he wonders how so much water could be pumped from the ground without having an impact.
"We must be sitting on top of an ocean," he said.