TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Unique research led by The University of Alabama will study whether more irrigation-fed farms in the Deep South could lead to a more robust agriculture industry, possibly becoming an even greater economic engine.
Irrigation-fed farming is not as commonplace in the humid and wet Deep South, particularly Alabama, as the rest of the country. The 17 states in the Western United States, for instance, make up three-quarters of all irrigated farmed acres, and, in California, nearly half of all farmland is irrigated, according to the latest federal data.
In contrast, only about 4% of farmland is irrigated in Alabama, but it is also the fourth wettest state in the nation.
With a four-year, $1.75 million grant from the National Science Foundation, UA researchers will examine how a transition from rain-fed farming to irrigation-fed farming in the Deep South could impact harvests and water use, providing crucial data to policymakers considering initiatives to encourage irrigation.
Although it may be an expensive transition for an existing farm, irrigation can ease farms through droughts and yield greater harvests, even in normal years, with great economic benefits.
“As agriculture plays a significant role in the economies of the Deep South, one potential option for their economic resurgence is through a drastic increase in agricultural productivity,” said lead principal investigator Dr. Hamid Moradkhani, the Alton N. Scott Endowed Professor of Engineering and director of UA’s Center for Complex Hydrosystems Research.
The study will look at the Mobile River Basin, the 44,600 square miles that drain into Mobile Bay that includes central Alabama and portions of eastern Mississippi and northwest Georgia. The research team will examine how the linked resources of food, water and energy within the basin would be impacted through a transition to irrigation farming.
Through computer modeling, the team will study how various levels of irrigation, from continuing the current course to a significant shift to irrigation, will affect agriculture productivity, energy production, water supply and waterway navigation. Researchers will also work with 60 farmers within the basin to evaluate the openness to transitioning.
It will also evaluate the influence of climatological, sociological and economic factors on farmer’s receptiveness to transitioning to irrigation.
“This project will help identify the barriers and incentives needed to spur transition to irrigation-fed farming in the Deep South, enabling informed decision-making by lawmakers,” Moradkhani said.
Along with Moradkhani, civil, construction and environmental engineering researchers from UA include Dr. Mukesh Kumar, associate professor; Dr. Hamed Moftakhari, assistant professor; and Dr. Glenn Tootle, associate professor. Also, Dr. Nicholas R. Magliocca, UA assistant professor of geography, is involved with the project.
Dr. Denis Nadolnyak, an Auburn University professor of agricultural economics and rural sociology, is also a part of the research team.
The grant comes from the NSF program Innovations at the Nexus of Food, Energy and Water Systems.
The University of Alabama, part of The University of Alabama System, is the state’s flagship university. UA shapes a better world through its teaching, research and service. With a global reputation for excellence, UA provides an inclusive, forward-thinking environment and nearly 200 degree programs on a beautiful, student-centered campus. A leader in cutting-edge research, UA advances discovery, creative inquiry and knowledge through more than 30 research centers. As the state’s largest higher education institution, UA drives economic growth in Alabama and beyond.