Legislation could help area farmers get aid in building irrigation systems

Published 8:19pm Friday, June 7, 2013

In an effort to help Alabama farmers continue to compete and have the type of productivity and yields they need in order to stay in business, U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions introduced an amendment to the Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act of 2013, also known as the farm bill, which if passed, will help protect Alabama farmers against drought and promote increased productions through irrigation access.

Current U.S. Department of Agriculture requirements prevent most Alabama farmers from being eligible for the Agricultural Water Enhancement Program — a program that provides assistance to farmers with the use of upland water storage ponds, irrigation system improvements, water quality improvement and other similar efforts.

Sessions said expanding irrigation in Alabama will help protect against drought and can also dramatically increase agricultural production in the state.

“USDA currently limits AWEP to farms that have been irrigated previously — a requirement that prevents most Alabama farmers from being eligible for this useful program,” Sessions said. “My amendment, which was accepted by unanimous agreement in the Senate, eliminates this unwarranted restriction and will help ensure that more Alabama farmers are eligible for USDA irrigation assistance programs.”

The Senate unanimously adopted Sessions’ farm bill amendment for Alabama farmers on May 21.

The Alabama Farmers Federation praised the U.S. Senate for the adoption of the amendment.

“Alabama is way behind other states — even other Southeastern states — in the number of acres that we have that are irrigated. So our farmers in Alabama are much more susceptible to drought and inconsistent weather patterns during the growing season than our neighbors even in Mississippi and Georgia, where they do more irrigation,” Jeff Helms, ALFA communications director said, noting it is increasingly important to expand irrigation in Alabama.

Roughly five percent of Alabama’s farmland is irrigated, meaning 95 percent of the state’s farmland is ineligible for the AWEP program the way the law is currently written.

Helms said the new amendment will be beneficial to those farmer’s in Dallas County seeking to irrigate their land.

“If you have a farmer in Dallas County who would like to establish irrigation and they’ve never done that before, this program now makes them eligible for assistance through this USDA program, provided that it’s approved in the final version of the farm bill,” Helms said. “It would give farmers in Dallas County and throughout the state who have never irrigated, access to state and federal assistance to help them establish that irrigation. And that’s huge, especially when that farmer is looking at the cost of trying to weigh the cost of doing that — that’s real important.”

Establishing irrigation is important for several of reasons, he said, namely to help the farmers themselves be more productive and more profitable so they can stay on their land and continue their family farms.

Helms said that although Alabama is blessed with abundant rainfall — more than 50 inches in a year — it doesn’t always fall at the right time.

“For instance with corn, there’s a two week window that’s critical. If you don’t get rain in that two-week period of time, during the growing season of corn, you may not make a very good crop,” Helms said. “So if farmers have access to irrigation they can collect water during the rainy winter months and then apply it to those crops during the times when those crops need it most. They can salvage a crop that would be a disaster during a drought and more importantly in a year that’s just dry — maybe not a full blown drought — and they can possibly add enough water to a crop to turn it from an average crop into a great crop.”

In addition to aiding to the profitability and productivity of farmers, the amendment to the farm bill would create benefits for non-farmers as well.

“This is a good thing for everyone who doesn’t farm as well, because farming is one of the major economic engines for the state of Alabama. Agriculture related industries account for about one in every five jobs,” Helms said. “So as farmers’ productivity increases with the implementation of irrigation — that’s going to create more economic activity in our rural communities.”

The Senate and the House committee on Agriculture have each passed its version of the bill. Helms said farmers will now wait for the House to pass its version of the farm bill and for the differences between those two to be worked out in committee.

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