How will we feed the 9 billion souls who will share our planet in a few short years? One important strategy that I’ve been focusing on for U.S. agriculture is sustainable intensification.
That means maximizing land use and inputs through improved farming techniques and technologies that substantially boost yields—doublecropping, bolstering soil health with cover crops, using improved seeds and fertilizer and making every drop of water count. Planning for the future also means strategically directing research funds today to develop those techniques and technologies that will enable farmers to produce the bumper harvests required tomorrow.
There’s excellent work going forward in developing improved seeds and more efficient fertilizer that will help producers meet increased demand. But another resource is particularly important: water. We’ve got to develop and help farmers implement technologies that maximize water usage, whether the water flows through irrigation pipes or falls as precipitation.
As I shared with the members in attendance this month at the 88th Annual Southwestern Fertilizer Conference in San Antonio, the biggest coming challenge agriculture faces, in the West particularly, but also in the humid areas of the Midwest and the Southeast, will be the availability of water for livestock use, for rain-fed agriculture and for irrigation-based agriculture. Increasing efficiency is essential. We must advocate today for the research that will drive yields tomorrow.
It’s a given that water helps turn low-value forage into high value animal protein and that irrigation can significantly raise yields per acre. The world needs more protein and those higher yields, and we must find improved strategies to provide them. We have to double down on precision irrigation to maximize use per drop and accelerate adoption of proven new technology.
As climate changes produce greater weather variability, it is vital that more and more producers make the investment in precision irrigation, which directs the water exactly where it needs to go in the field based on temperature or water content in soil. This can reduce water usage by 10 to 30 percent. Let’s direct research toward improving those systems and cutting the cost of them.
We also must be willing to offer conservation cost-share funds to assist producers in getting precision irrigation in place on farmland. These systems currently are expensive to install and not cheap to maintain or implement. Yet, investing in them benefits us all as these technologies reduce overwatering, cut crop losses, lower the potential for soil runoff and minimize energy use.
At the same time, we need to make clear to everyone that agricultural land must continue to receive appropriate priority for water resources. Just as the highest and best use of prime agricultural land is producing food, so the highest and best use of scarce water is growing grain, raising livestock and yielding fruits and vegetables—food for families. We are not talking about increasing irrigated acreage, but about ensuring that we continue to deliver the resources necessary to keep current prime acreage in production, preferably with higher yields.
In the East, water issues may not be so obvious. Supplies are usually adequate. However, we need to improve water storage so that sufficient water is available when needed in times of drought. With broader swings in normal weather, this is increasingly necessary. This means work on small dams that can boost water storage also should be a high priority.
I am excited about the new opportunities that sustainable intensification can bring, particularly with wise stewardship of water resources. We can move toward more efficient use of the resources we have while at the same time increasing yields. That’s a win-win that we should be pursuing vigorously for the sake of American farmers and consumers—and the world.
About the author: Bruce I. Knight, Principal, Strategic Conservation Solutions, was the Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) from 2006 to 2009. From 2002 to 2006, Knight served as Chief of Natural Resources Conservation Service. The South Dakota native worked on Capitol Hill for Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, Rep. Fred Grandy, Iowa, and Sen. James Abdnor, South Dakota. In addition, Knight served as vice president for public policy for the National Corn Growers Association and also worked for the National Association of Wheat Growers. A third-generation rancher and farmer and lifelong conservationist, Knight operates a diversified grain and cattle operation using no-till and rest rotation grazing systems.
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