Oregon still among national leaders in irrigation usage

By Oregon Department of Agriculture,

The perception and reality that Oregon is generally a wet and soggy state seems at odds with the fact that the state’s agriculture relies heavily on irrigation. But the results of a national farm and ranch irrigation survey confirm that Oregon is one of the top users in the US of irrigation for agricultural production. The amount of irrigated acreage has actually gone up the past five years in Oregon even though the number of farms using irrigation has gone down.

“Oregon is a wet state seasonally, but we live in a maritime climate which generally brings drier summers during our growing season and the need for irrigation,” says Jim Johnson, land use and water planning coordinator for the Oregon Department of Agriculture. “When you look at the value of the portion of Oregon agriculture that relies on irrigation in terms of the percentage of total production, it has an even greater importance.”

The latest figures from the US Department of Agriculture’s irrigation survey show that 12,156 of Oregon’s 38,600 farms irrigate some or all of their land. That’s down from the 14,205 farms listed in the 2003 survey, but puts Oregon seventh among all states in the number of farms using irrigation.

The number of acres irrigated in Oregon now stands at 1.75 million, which is up by nearly 27,000 acres from 2003, and places the state eighth in the nation in irrigated acres. Currently, 45 percent of all crop land in Oregon is irrigated.

“The acreage is going up and that’s important,” says Johnson. “It shows that high value crop production is continuing. I’m always concerned about losing water that is earmarked for irrigation to non-farm uses, whether it is due to urbanization or some other factor. So to see the number of acres irrigated in Oregon basically holding steady makes me feel a lot better in terms of the agriculture industry holding its own and keeping a critical mass of water available for irrigation.”

Five years ago, persistent drought conditions took some acreage in Eastern Oregon out of production. The latest survey reflects better precipitation and water availability, which has restored some of the acreage to irrigation.

A breakdown in the size of farms using irrigation shows most categories hovering around the 25 percent mark in amount of acres irrigated. The exception is those farms less than 50 acres in size- only 15 percent of the farmland in that category use irrigation.

Oregon continues to be a leader in water efficiency, according to the survey. It’s clear that Oregon farmers and ranchers are going from less efficient systems, such as flood irrigation, to more efficient systems, including sprinklers and drip irrigation.

“Some of the numbers have changed dramatically over the past five years,” says Johnson. “We are now seeing better conservation in water delivery systems.”

The survey shows that about 61 percent of Oregon’s irrigated lands- a little more than a million acres- use sprinkler systems to deliver water. Another 668,000 acres use gravity flow systems. There has been little change in the use of both systems. However, there has been dramatic growth in the amount of acres using drip, trickle, or low-flow micro-sprinklers. In 2003, that acreage was just 16,245 acres. Last year, it had jumped to 81,109 acres- a 500 percent increase.

“Drip irrigation is very targeted on the crop, results in less evaporation, and does conserve water,” says Johnson.

Oregon is one of the states also paving the way for others when it comes to going green in pumping irrigation water. According to the USDA survey, California and the Pacific Northwest states are responsible for more than 94 percent of all on-farm pumps in the nation powered by solar and other renewable energy sources. In 2003, only 328 farms in the entire US had such systems. In 2008, the Pacific Northwest had 517 farms itself making use of renewable energy for pumps.

In general, Oregon ranks fourth in the nation in the number of farms implementing energy or conservation improvements in the lasts five years, at 4,982 farms. Benefits noted in the survey include improved crop yields, reduced energy costs, reduced water applied, reduced labor costs, reduced fertilizer and pesticide losses, and reduced soil erosion. Last year, 493 farms in Oregon used recycled or reclaimed water. The survey also shows that 522 Oregon farms used irrigation water on more than 26,000 acres to aid wildlife or water-fowl habitat- up from just 97 farms in 2003.

The survey also points out that the greatest benefit of irrigation still rests with agricultural production itself. The dollars earned by farmers and ranchers can often be directly tied to the use of irrigation water. About 85 percent of the value of all Oregon non-grain food crops comes from farms that irrigate.

More than 700,000 acres are irrigated to grow alfalfa and other hay, while another 338,000 acres of pasture land is irrigated, benefitting high-value livestock commodities such as cattle. About 182,000 acres are irrigated for vegetable production, 177,000 acres for wheat, nearly 47,000 acres for potatoes, and 33,000 acres for tree fruit, wine grapes, and nuts. Another 215,000 acres are recorded in a catchall category that includes nursery production- the state’s top ranked agricultural commodity.

The year-to-year concern about a strong winter snowpack needed for summer irrigation is no different heading into 2010, as irrigators hope for enough precipitation in the higher elevations in the months to come to satisfy their needs in the next growing season. Whatever happens, one thing won’t change- Oregon agriculture will always require irrigation in order to be fully successful.

For more information, contact Jim Johnson at (503) 986-4706.

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