Farm Progress

Why farmers irrigate in the rain and police officers like donut shops

June 23, 2014

3 Min Read

“It was raining, and he had the irrigation running in the field. Why?” That’s what an urban-leaning friend of mine asked me recently, referring to what he felt was an appalling misuse of water resources by a farmer somewhere locally.

The friend, who is a police officer, knows what I do for a living and asked the question in part to highlight what he felt was an irresponsible farming practice and in part, to his credit, to really inquire as to why this or how this could happen.

“Maybe there is a good reason, but I really don’t see why he’d have to waste water when rain is already coming down,” my good man said.

The answers to why the irrigation was running while it rained in the field can be many. And I didn’t care to carry on this conversation with my pavement-pounding pal, but I didn’t want a teachable moment to pass. God bless ’im.

I asked him a few questions:

“What was the soil moisture level in the field?”

“Was the pivot - I assume you saw a center pivot - running all sprinklers or just a few? How much had it rained in the last five days in that field?”

“Was it a corn field and was the system pumping nitrogen, which is called fertigation? Had the corn reached tassel?”

“Was it cotton and was the cotton squaring yet?”

My friend looked at me a bit surprised with a quirky little smile. “I don’t know,” he said.

It costs money to farm, big money. And if you see a farmer doing almost anything in a field, it’s costing money. Very few farmers do things in a field for “kicks and giggles.”

$11.75 per acre inch of water

At the time I didn’t have at fingertips hard numbers to provide the officer, numbers on how much it costs to irrigate crops. I told my friend I’d get back to him with some numbers to verify why a farmer likely would not irrigate if he didn't have to. I contacted another friend, Nathan Smith, an economist with the University of Georgia Extension. Here is what he said:

“In the (Georgia) crop budgets we are charging an average of $11.75 per acre inch of water reflecting a 50/50 ratio of diesel and electric power sources. This will certainly vary from farm to farm, pivot to pivot.  This figure covers variable costs. For fixed cost we have a charge of $120 per acre. This is reflected in the higher cost of land rent and is charged as an opportunity cost to having irrigation.  

There probably are a lot of growers with lower costs as electric power is more prevalent now, but we are being conservative in this case without knowing the true ratio.”

When later learning this, the officer said, “Put those figures on a couple of hundred or even a thousand acres and that’s pretty big money.”

Hey, he didn’t know. He assumed. He now knew. I decided this was a perfect time to make my own inquiry to him on something he might clear up for me.

“I saw two police cars parked in front of a donut shop and three police officers standing in the shop. Why do policemen love donuts so much or hang out in donut shops so often?” I asked him, mainly to get his goat.

We were on the phone this time. He paused and then asked me a few questions:

“Were they on break? When did the officers in question last take time for a break? Were said officers responding to a complaint? Maybe the establishment had a break-in or problem with loiters. Did said establishment also serve coffee?”

“Touché,” I said.

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