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Serving: IL

Irrigation drives Illinois specialty crops forward

Photos by Tyler Harris Matt Friend stands in front of one of his green bean fields in Mason County
IRRIGATION COUNTRY: Matt Friend stands in front of one of his green bean fields in Mason County, Ill. A unique place in the Midwest, Mason County sits atop the Mahomet Aquifer, providing a reliable groundwater source for irrigation.
Mason County, Ill., is a place like no other in the state, where irrigation isn't just supplemental — it's a necessity.

When it comes to irrigation, Illinois likely isn't the first state to come to mind. However, Mason County, in the central part of the state, has 136,893 acres under irrigation, according to the 2017 USDA Census of Agriculture. This ranks it No. 6 of all Midwestern counties east of the Missouri River — the top 5 are all in the Missouri Bootheel, where the climate and agriculture more closely resemble the Delta region and the Southeast.

variable rate irrigation machine
FINE-TUNING VRI: Friend typically delineates zones based on soil type and elevation, and he notes variable-rate irrigation can take dynamic management. "Some fields, I vary 10 to 15 times per circle, and the speed changes based on soil type and how much water is being used. It will go from 6/10 of an inch to just 12/100. So the speed difference is pretty big — it can be 70% to 80% one area, then 20% speed on another," he says.

"Illinois isn't a huge irrigated state, but there are pockets in it where the soil type alone determines that you're going to have to irrigate," says Matt Friend, whose family has been irrigating in the area since the 1950s. "We have sandy soil here in Mason County, and without irrigation, you're probably not raising any crop at all. There might be alfalfa, or most of it would be enrolled in some kind of Conservation Reserve Program just to protect the soil — because without the water, there's no way you're going to grow a true crop for a year. In our area, there are several thousand systems."

After the advent of irrigation in the county in the late 1950s and early 1960s, significant expansion occurred during and after the drought of the late 1980s.

"Just as input costs have moved skyward, to guarantee a crop each year is getting more important all the time," Friend says. "People can't afford to invest $400 to $700 an acre in a crop, and potentially have a drought and get zero return back."

Specialty crop hotspot

The entirety of Mason County also sits on top of the Mahomet Aquifer, providing a reliable water source for irrigators in the region.

"The water is available to us so we don't have to dig deep wells. Eighty to 90 feet is all we have to go down for a 10- to 15-inch well, and we're pumping 900 to 1,200 gallons per minute," Friend says. "If you go to Colorado, even Nebraska, their recharge is down to 15% to 20%. It takes years for that water to go from the topsoil down to the aquifer. Our recharge is 98%. In really bad years, like 1993 when the entire Midwest flooded, our aquifer was aboveground. That's the only danger — when sand becomes quicksand. It doesn't take much to charge us back up."

pumpkins in fieldILLINOIS SPECIALTY: Pumpkins, like the ones seen here in one of Friend's fields, are a common sight in Mason County and other parts of central Illinois. In fact, more than 90% of the canning pumpkins in the U.S. are grown in Illinois.

With a reliable water source and sandy soils, Mason County's agriculture is unlike any other place in Illinois — and most places in the Corn Belt. Here, there are a number of specialty crop and vegetable processors, and irrigators like Friend grow a cornucopia of different crops — including popcorn, sweet corn, snap beans, green beans, canning pumpkins, potatoes, beets for food coloring, and even tomatoes, pickles and horseradish.

"You name a vegetable, and we've probably tried to grow it. Irrigation is very important, because we can guarantee yield and water throughout the year," Friend says.

Irrigation evolution

It goes without saying that irrigation management has changed dramatically since those early days of irrigation in Mason County, but things have changed even more since the mid-2000s.

"Telemetry is great — I can control all my systems through the phone," Friend says. "I'm not driving all day long just to check and turn on pivots. It was a never-ending process. I'm saving around 30,000 miles a year on my truck just by being able to control pivots from my phone — not to mention the hours I can sleep because I'm not going 20 hours a day. You could lose 24 to 48 hours of water if a pivot goes down — and now I get a text message."

Friend, as well as other irrigators in the area, have also adopted variable-rate irrigation technology in different forms — including the ability to vary speed around the pivot, and fully variable-rate systems, where each sprinkler varies based on the amount of water required. Friend has fields with different levels of variability — some with four zones, and some 10 or 15. He typically delineates zones based on soil type and elevation, and he notes that VRI can take dynamic management.

Matt Friend holding a potatoIRRIGATION NECESSARY: While potatoes are uncommon in Illinois, they are grown in Mason County, thanks to the presence of processors like Frito-Lay — and potatoes require up to 3 inches of water per week, in addition to spoon-feeding nutrients like potash, calcium and nitrogen, as well as micronutrients. From this standpoint, potatoes benefit from irrigation and fertigation, in addition to telemetry and remote sensing, to determine the quantity of water and nutrients the crop is using.

"Some fields I vary 10 to 15 times per circle, and the speed changes based on soil type and how much water is being used. It will go from 6/10 of an inch to just 12/100. So the speed difference is pretty big — it can be 70% to 80% one area, then 20% speed on another," he says. "Some of it is how long the water stays there. I've got fields where, within 12 to 18 hours of a half-inch to 1 inch of rain, it's time to start thinking about irrigating again, because it goes through the sand so fast."

Learning curve

Friend notes the main hurdle in adopting variable-rate irrigation is the initial cost and the invested time required to delineate multiple zones in a half-mile pivot span.

"The cost is going to be several dollars an acre. You won't recoup that in a single season, but you will over time," he says. "The first year is a big learning curve, too, because you may think you have an area that's always wet; but when you quit watering, it dries up fast. Then you can fine-tune and find where the sweet spot is. It takes boots on the ground, checking daily or semiweekly to make sure you're getting exactly what you want out there.

"It reminds of when we stated prescription planting. It was overwhelming at first, but as we've learned more and got more comfortable with it, it becomes more familiar and normal," he adds.

Friend notes there are always new technologies coming down the pipeline — and investing in new irrigation technology can pay off in efficiency gains.

"Don't be afraid of change, just because it's never been tried. Be on the lookout for new innovations," he says. "There are new products coming out all the time. You don't have to use it on your entire farm, but don't be afraid to try it. You'll find out quickly whether it pays or whether it doesn't."

Harris is a former editor at Farm Progress.

TAGS: Crops
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