The Southeastern U.S. might be uniquely equipped with the right combination of natural resources to meet the nation’s growing demand for farm products.
“The Southeast may be in a sweet spot,” said Richard McNider from The University of Alabama in Huntsville. “We are one of the few places in the country with both the water and the land that will be needed to substantially increase farm production.
“That could become very important in the near future, as California and other western states continue to struggle with escalating water shortages. Southern New Mexico, for instance, recently set an all-time record for consecutive days without rain.”
Supported by an almost $2.2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, McNider leads a team that will spend the next four years studying the environmental and economic impacts that widespread expansion of irrigated agriculture might have in the Southeast. The test region includes Alabama, Mississippi, North Florida, Georgia and South Carolina.
“If the forecasts for climate change are accurate, the dry western states will get drier and the wet states will get wetter,” said McNider, a professor emeritus of atmospheric science at UAHuntsville.
West will probably get drier
“Whether we have climate change or not, the western region is very likely to return to the ‘normal’ climate of the previous 500 years, which is much drier than the climate of the past 100 years.
“In either case, the impact on our food, fiber and now energy security will be significant. Now is the time to start thinking about how we deal with these issues, instead of waiting for the crisis that we can see coming at us.”
The research team includes climate and weather modeling experts at UAHuntsville, ecologists at The University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, agricultural economists at the University of Georgia, crop modelers at Washington State University, water policy experts at California State University at Long Beach, and hydrology modelers at the U.S. Forest Service.
The study’s goals include determining how much surface water is available for irrigation, and how much is needed for optimum farm production. The team will look at the environmental impact of taking water out of local ecological systems and whether large-scale irrigation can be sustained over long periods of time.
Several factors in addition to climate change may be coming together that will make irrigation-assisted farming in the Southeast more economically attractive, McNider said. Rising fuel costs are raising the price of shipping across the country fruits and vegetables that once were raised east of the Mississippi River. The growing demand for alternative fuels, especially ethanol and biodiesel, means droughts or flooding in the Midwest might cause drastic swings in prices for both food and gasoline in the future.
“We have made ourselves vulnerable to drought in the Midwest, at the same time we deal with almost inevitable water shortages in the West,” McNider said.