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Please pass the potatoes — and be grateful for technology and irrigation

For some farmers, the saving grace this severe drought year was the ability to irrigate, so that crops, and our nation’s food supply, had a fighting chance.

REUTERS/Dane Rhys

The persistence of COVID-19, supply chain challenges and difficult labor markets made 2021 a trying year for the agriculture industry in Minnesota. Throw in the most severe drought in decades, and this growing season felt almost insurmountable.

Thankfully, for some crop farmers, there was one saving grace this season — the ability to irrigate — so that our crops, and our nation’s food supply, had a fighting chance.

Minnesota has more than 600,000 acres of agricultural irrigation permits throughout the state. Particularly in the coarse, sandy soil region of central Minnesota, irrigation is used to ensure crops receive the necessary amount of water to grow and thrive.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the University of Minnesota recommend a suite of technology and data analysis tools to help farmers use just what they need and do so at scale. It used to be that farmers had to drive from field to field so we could touch the soil and see how it was doing. While many of us still do that to some degree, we also have soil monitors that help us measure with a greater degree of precision the amount of moisture below the surface. And, we can do that from anywhere.

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Once we know which fields and how much water our fields need, our center-pivot irrigation equipment efficiently distributes it. With improvements in technology, our center pivot irrigation systems are 90 to 95% efficient, meaning that 90 to 95% percent of the water being applied is available to the crop and not lost to evaporation and runoff.

In a growing season like 2021, when there were months without measurable rainfall, the ability to irrigate meant the difference between raising a crop that feeds an army or a crop that feeds a squadron. Unfortunately, this year on my farm, I observed firsthand just how detrimental it would be to my business and community if I did not have the ability to irrigate. Crops that were planted on the coarse-textured sands without irrigation yielded 75% to 80% less than crops grown under irrigation, which we estimate cost our farm up northwards of $250,000.

So, why does this all matter? Irrigated agriculture is essential to the nation’s — and the world’s — food supply. With the global population soon reaching 8 billion, there’s no shortage of mouths to feed.

Jake Wildman
Jake Wildman
According to the state Department of Agriculture, Minnesota farmers are top producers in the nation’s food supply chain, ranking third in total crop cash receipts. We are in the top 10 growers in the nation for sugar beets, oats, sweetcorn, green peas, wild rice, soybeans, spring wheat, canola, corn, dry beans, flax seed, sunflowers, potatoes and barley. We are feeding armies.

Luckily in Minnesota, our land and water lend favorably to growing crops and raising animals. We as farmers know and understand that when we take care of the soil, it will take care of us. When there’s a drought, we have access to naturally replenishing water supplies that sustain our crops. And we as farmers have the technology, data and science to help us conserve and protect these resources at the same time.

This week, I’m thankful for all farmers — those who raise crops and animals — for all they do for our communities, our food supply and our nation. I’m thankful for the productive land, rich soils and water resources. Most of all, I’m thankful to be a farmer, and hopeful to continue farming for decades to come.

Jake Wildman is a farmer in the Bonanza Valley and president of the Irrigators Association of Minnesota. He lives near Glenwood, Minnesota.