Not too long ago, J. Allen Carnes and his father made crop planting decisions based on market conditions, what they expected would be in demand several months down the road.
“That’s no longer the case,” Carnes said during the opening session of the Texas Plant Protection Association’s 26th Annual Conference in early December at the Brazos Center in Bryan.
“Now, we ask, do we have the water to produce it?”
Carnes, farmer and owner of Winter Gardens Produce in Uvalde, Texas, said the diversified operation includes vegetables as well as cotton and wheat. Vegetable production took precedence until 2011.
“The question of whether water is limiting our ability to produce is an easy one,” he added. But the answer is more complex.
“We’ve been worrying about water in Texas for a long time and looking for ways to conserve it. Water costs are high. But water will continue to be the No. 1 factor in deciding what, where, how and if we plant.”
He offers an example from his own operation. Before 2011, Winter Garden Produce included 1,400 acres of cabbage, 800 acres of onions, 250 acres of broccoli, 600 acres of cotton and 800 acres of wheat, often as a rotation crop.
“In 2014, we planted 544 acres of cabbage, 517 in onions, 550 in broccoli, 601 in cotton and 1,837 in wheat.
The reason for the switch, especially the significant increase in wheat acreage and the equally deep cut in cabbage, is availability of water. Carnes said vegetable crops take as much as 24 inches of water to produce. Wheat requires about 10 inches and production costs run around $200 per acre, considerably less than vegetable crops.
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The consequence of crop changes goes beyond the farm, he said. “Fewer dollars are turned over from wheat production than from produce. That’s an effect of limited water.”
Carnes’ farm pulls from the Edwards Aquifer for irrigation and the changes that have occurred in this region over the past decade may provide “a snapshot of what [Texas] can expect in the next 20 years.”
The underground water district is a regional organization that has pitted rural against urban interests. Water allocation is 2 acre feet per year. “We are currently under Stage 5 drought restrictions,” Carnes said. “That means we have a 44 percent reduction in allotment, or 1.12 acre feet. How do we produce a crop that needs 24 inches of water on 1.12 acre feet — about 12 inches? We take land out of production.”
He compared the current aquifer level — which has been declining since 2007— and water demand to the 1950’s drought. The difference between water demand issues during the 50’s and today “is that we have more straws stuck into the aquifer.”
Even more straws are likely in the years ahead as the Texas population heads to around 47 million by 2060, double today’s level. Water experts agree that agriculture irrigation will decrease during that time as municipal demand increases.
“Innovation will help agriculture” Carnes said. “We have opportunities to mitigate the effects on agriculture.”
He said conservation practices will be important. “We are trying to figure out how to stretch every drop of water as far as we can stretch it. We have to make sure irrigation timing is correct and determine if we can delay a day or two and perhaps benefit from rainfall.”
He says the drought has brought little in the way of benefit to the Texas agriculture economy. “But if there is a silver lining to the drought, it is that everyone now is talking about water.” Some of that conversation has resulted in new funding from the legislature through the State Water Implementation Fund for Texas (SWIFT).
Carnes also sees opportunity for Texas farmers who take advantage of changing consumer preferences. He said at one time consumers might say they were interested in where food was produced but by the time they got to the grocery store they bought on price. “Now, consumers are looking for more locally grown produce.”
He said grocery chains also seek more local suppliers to meet demand. “Texas is a big market for goods and services provided by agricultural producers.”
He showed a long list of products that are imported into the state. “That means opportunity for ag producers,” he said. “We have the land resources; we just need to figure out the water issue.”
He said farmers in the Edwards Aquifer region have been forced to manage water better from both a physical and a financial limitation. That issue has intensified with the drought.
He says agriculture needs to do a better job of telling its story and making a case for how important the industry is for the state economy.
At the same time, farmers need to do all they can to manage and conserve water as efficiently as possible.