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Survey finds Oregon farmers depend on irrigation

January 26, 2005...Recently released results of a new federal survey emphasize the importance of irrigation to Oregon agriculture despite the common perception that the state is often soggy and wet. Even though the number of irrigated acres is down from five years ago, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's latest farm and ranch irrigation survey shows Oregon ranked third in the nation in the number of farms and ranches utilizing irrigation, and ninth in the amount of acreage irrigated.

"Many people think irrigation is not a big issue in Oregon because of how wet the state appears to be," says Jim Johnson, land use and water planning coordinator for the Oregon Department of Agriculture. "However, irrigation is really a key to Oregon agriculture. Nearly 45 percent of all farms and ranches in the state do some type of irrigation totaling about 1.9 million acres."

Oregon does not normally receive the summer rain enjoyed by the Midwest states and other parts of the country. Irrigation provides water necessary for much of agriculture during the growing season.

The latest figures show 17,776 of Oregon's 40,033 farms irrigate some or all of their land. The number of farms is up slightly from the 1997 irrigation survey, but the number of acres irrigated is down by 55,850 acres. Reasons vary for the relatively small drop in acreage, according to Johnson.

"According to the responses, the majority of irrigated acres that were lost in the 2003 survey were lands in which the farmer determined they didn't need the water because there was sufficient soil moisture at that time," he says. "It wasn't an actual conversion of irrigated crop land to a non-farm use, or anything like that. It appears to be a specific management decision for that specific year."

Another reason for a decrease in irrigated acres is likely related to drought conditions that have persisted the past couple of years in many areas of eastern Oregon. A county breakout of irrigation acreage shows significant drops in Umatilla, Morrow, Wallowa, Baker, and Malheur counties.

"With a scarcity of water, farmers in those areas have had to make decisions that often take crop land out of production for a given growing season," says Johnson.

A third reason for a decrease in irrigated acres may be attributed to efficiency in the use and delivery of water by farmers. Oregon ranks sixth in the nation for dollars invested in water conservation efforts related to irrigation systems. In 2003, when the survey was conducted, Oregon producers spent nearly $39 million in irrigation equipment– 47 percent of which was used to replace old equipment, 26 percent used for water conservation equipment and improvements, and 25 percent used to expand irrigation systems. In all, about 15 percent of all Oregon farms and ranches made investments in irrigation equipment. There were 36 operations investing more than $75,000.

"All these numbers tell me that farmers are looking at going from less efficient systems such as flood irrigation to more efficient systems like drip irrigation or sprinklers," says Johnson.

The survey shows that about 40 percent of Oregon's irrigated lands– about 700,000 acres– are gravity flow systems. Most of the rest of the irrigated acreage is watered through sprinkler systems. A small percentage of farms and ranches have moved to drip, trickle, or low-flow micro-sprinklers on about 16,000 acres. The expense in such equipment has kept that number from being higher.

Oregon farmers and ranchers also provided for environmental and wildlife benefits. Oregon leads the nation in the number of farms transferring water– either by renting or leasing– to environmental uses. In all, 51,283 acre-feet of water was transferred by farmers and ranchers to others with a significant portion going to help the environment. The survey also shows that 97 Oregon farms used irrigation water on nearly 35,000 acres to aid wildlife or water-fowl habitat, ranking fifth among all states in the amount used for such a purpose.

The sources of water for irrigation are also detailed in the survey. More than 3,600 Oregon farms get their water from wells and apply it on some 421,000 acres of crop land. However, even more irrigators utilize water sources that are off-farm. More than 5,600 farms and ranches rely on the Bureau of Reclamation, other federal agencies, water districts, or projects for irrigation water that serves some 700,000 acres of land.

While 1,124 farms or ranches constructed new wells or deepened existing ones in 2003, 720 operations completed construction of permanent storage and distribution systems on site.

The survey clearly points out the greatest benefit of irrigation still rests with agricultural production itself. The dollars earned by farmers and ranchers can often be directly tied to the use of irrigation water.

"When you look at the value of agricultural production, 85 percent of the value of all Oregon crops comes from farms that irrigate," says ODA economic analyst Brent Searle. "In addition, those farms that irrigate all of their production produce 55 percent of the value of all Oregon's crops."

Nearly 741,000 acres are irrigated to grow alfalfa and other hay. Another 417,779 acres are irrigated for pasture grasses, 143,046 acres for wheat, 52,991 acres for corn for silage, 45,032 acres for vegetables, 44, 788 acres for potatoes, 37,600 acres for orchards and vineyards, and 31,021 acres for berry production (number two in the nation behind California). Another 142,558 acres are recorded in a catchall category that includes nursery production. Many of Oregon's top ten agricultural commodities are found in those categories– especially when you factor the pasture grass, hay production, and corn for silage as direct feed crops for livestock.

The year-to-year concern about a strong winter snowpack needed for summer irrigation is no different this year as conditions are well below normal in most basins. Whatever happens, one thing won't change– Oregon agriculture will always need irrigation in order to be fully successful.

The complete survey results can be found at <http://www.nass.usda.gov/census/census02/fris/fris03.htm>



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