Water isn’t only one of the fundamental building blocks of life; it is in many ways the blood that is coursing through the veins of agriculture. Especially, Nebraska Agriculture. Nebraska happens to be the #1 state in the U.S. when it comes to acres of irrigated farm ground, over 8.2 million acres, or 44% of all crop ground in the 2012 ag census if you would like to look at it that way. Of course having that #1 seat, means we have a target on our back. This past winter the mainstream media kept exceptionally busy talking about water usage and putting a large focus on it.
In the press, the old adage is, “bad news sells.” The message about aquifers, especially the Ogallala aquifer, weren’t exactly endearing to agriculture. This news wasn’t just in the Lincoln Journal Star; we’re talking national media outlets. With that being said, the good news is society hasn’t entirely decided to villainize agriculture, just hold agriculture accountable. Really when it comes to such a serious issue, that’s a fair expectation. Agriculture as a whole has operated with free reigns in many regards with their irrigation and water usage over the past sixty years. Most of the regulations that we see on water usage have only come out in the past 15-20 years, most of those regulations being somewhat localized to very specific areas. We are now operating in a new reality. The American consumer is beginning to demand that we not only feed them, but we do it in a sustainable way. Sustainability is not a dirty word; it’s something that we strive to help you and your operation with every day. Making you sustainable, allowing you to maintain your License to Operate.
So, as we stare down the barrel towards the upcoming changes that will affect Nebraska Agriculture, I think it’s safe to say we need to take some time to look at our options for different courses of action, and look at the potential impacts of those actions.
Path #1 – Stay the Course
Outcome: If we don’t change what we are doing, it isn’t a matter of if, but when will we have areas where we can no longer access water. This is going to come from either physical or political reasons. If we lose our ability to irrigate out of our Aquifers, we may have to change crops or farm that ground as dry-land. Estimates say that could be a $4,000.00 a year per acre loss to the state’s economy. I don’t know about you, but that outcome sounds incredibly scary. I want to avoid this option at all costs.
Path #2 – Take Action
The other realistic outcome is that we begin to take action before it is too late. If we rise as a collective group in Agriculture, we have three possible outcomes.
Outcome #1: Society and the Government completely ignore our efforts and implement restrictions and regulations on how we operate. IF this is what happens, it will be the proactive growers and agronomists that will be best poised to address the changes and be successful, those that resisted will have a significantly hard time adapting.
Outcome #2: We make so many changes as an industry that society and the Government step back and continue to let us operate. We will have created a new matrix where they have relatively little input, this would be wonderful, but probably a little unrealistic on my part.
Outcome #3. It seems the most likely outcome lies somewhere in the middle. The Growers and Agronomists that decide to be proactive will collectively advocate for common sense and science to reasonably work together towards a solution. Will this shield us from further regulation? Probably not, but it will hopefully give us a voice in building those regulations. My view of the future for Agriculture in this area still involves us being able to irrigate. But I believe the reality will also include us using technology, genetics, and crops that are not commonly grown here now to extend your License to Operate out over the next 50 years. Similar to outcome #1, it will be the proactive growers and the Agronomists who are prepared to meet these new demands and flourish in the new reality.
Every generation of our ancestors who have occupied this area of the United States has overcome and adapted to life-changing events to maintain their livelihoods and continue to be agricultural producers. As history has taught us, those that had the vision to see the new direction and executed changes first were the survivors. Two out of the three outcomes listed above show reward for those who were proactive. Over the course of the summer, I am going to lead us through the process of evaluating how our crops use water, and how we provided the water to the crops. I am a firm believer that technology alone isn’t the solution to improving our water use efficiency. Getting better doesn’t happen overnight, it comes in steps, and with practice. I am blowing the whistle. It’s time for practice to start.