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Micro-Irrigation on Small Farms

In the early 1900’s, Henry Powell bought some land outside of the community of Fitzgerald in Irwin County and started a farm. Today, Jerome Powell, a third generation farmer, farms the same land his grandfather farmed – 11 of his 14 acres are now under micro-irrigation.

Powell was raised on the farm and left only when his Country called him to duty. “I graduated high school in 1965 and came back here in 1970 for one or two years then moved to Florida. I lived my life here except for my service and when I lived in Florida for three years. I learned how to farm right here,” said Powell.

During his service in the Army he served a tour in China where he became interested in micro-irrigation. He tried other irrigation systems, travelers, set guns, and pivots but decided to make a transition into drip irrigation after seeing the wasted water. “I look at the type of irrigation around, I have irrigation as well, but what made me really look at it was other better farmers land. As long as they water the fields that’s fine, but when they get to the end of the field going into to the branches and out into the road, they are not making any use of it. I got into it because of water source,” said Powell.

Powell learned about the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) from reading books, newsletters and a soil conservationist. “What got me into it more was when Carl Brown, a soil conservation technician for the NRCS and another older gentleman, did a lot of research out here on the different types of soils and I’d catch up with them and ask them questions, said Powell. “And then I took agricultural in high school. Carl Brown would come by and give us lectures on different types of water and soils and all that he did in his field.”

“The drip system with plastic puts the water in the root zone. There is very little evaporative loss. You are only watering the area under the plastic, not the whole surface area. This is a very good water conserving practice,” said Mary Leidner, district conservationist for the NRCS in Tifton.

Powell believes in conserving water wherever possible, that’s what he likes best about Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP). “Water conserving; it will help you get the crops to the point that you want. Where I was using three gallons of water I now use one, for example. With EQIP and the set up I got, I can water 4 acres in 16 hours all due to the drip and it’s all from the source direct to the plants,” said Powell.

Participating in the EQIP has helped Powell to make changes in his operation. He believes that the program is a big incentive. “I haven’t found anything that I don’t like about EQIP yet. There are a lot of good advantages in it. Your work load shifts. It has a lot of good saving features in it: expenses, time to market, and it helps you save time as well,” said Powell.

“Other practices in use on the Powell farm are irrigation water management, pest management, and nutrient management,” said Leidner.

His benefits are yet to be seen but he has toyed around with using the micro-irrigation system versus the conventional overhead watering with great results.

He said, “I experimented on the watering, drip verses conventional with overhead watering; I go from seed to mature watermelon in 65 days using the drip verses 90 to 110 days using the conventional watering method based on what type of melon. Crops grow faster with micro-irrigation.”

Powell’s philosophy for future generations is simple. “Credit to life, give back in a normal aspect for the future generation to enjoy.”

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Conservation Pays in Time and Dollars Saved! 

Waterloo farmer Don Register figures that retrofitting high pressure pivot systems to a lower pressure system with nozzles is a conservation practice well worth the effort! In fact, he’s so pleased that he plans to convert all of his systems––with or without government cost-share assistance.

“ So far I figured I’ve saved 40-45% in energy costs compared to the old high pressure system. I didn’t realize the saving in energy costs until I made this improvement. It’s been a big help especially in these dry years. I used Environmental Quality Incentive Fund (EQIP) funds to do the first retrofit and have applied for additional cost-share, but I plan to do more retrofits whether I get assistance or not,” Register said. Register has both irrigated land and dryland crop fields.

The center pivots were installed in the late 1970’s to improve crop production. “I just about have to have them now. If the weather this year is as dry as the last couple of years, I may not plant my dryland acres and just leave them idle,” Register said. “Our pivots are old high pressure systems with impact nozzles that spray the water up in the air. We are in the process of retrofitting the pivots to a lower pressure and installing spray nozzles on drops. We have limited water supplies on the farm. The nozzles on drops place the water closer to the crop and soil. There is less evaporation loss and with our strip till crops, we don’t lose any water to runoff.”

All cropland is farmed with strip tillage methods. Small grain cover crops provide winter cover and/or a grain crop. “We used to have terraces, contour farming and grassed waterways to control erosion. We had a lot of crooked rows and we still had erosion in our fields. Cover crops and strip tillage work better on our land––and our soil has more tilth and works better. A key to making this system work is to get your cover crops planted early. We try to get them planted in October or early November right after peanut and cotton harvest. Planting early gets the cover up and growing before cold weather slows the growth,” Register said.

All of the pine timber is managed for long term (sawtimber) production. “We have slash pine, loblolly pine and long leaf pine and manage all of it with thinning and prescribed burning. We use row thinning and selective thinning to leave the best trees for future growth,” Register pointed out. “Right now we are thinning a 20-year-old stand for the 2nd time. Our goal is to leave about 400 trees per acre for continued growth. We use prescribed burning after thinning to manage the understory and to keep the fire hazard down. I’m careful when I burn. We don’t want to remove too much ground cover or we’ll have erosion problems on this hilly land. Some of our pine land was highly erodible cropland and we used the Conservation Reserve Program to set the land in pines. It will wash if you don’t keep a good cover on it even when planted in pines.”

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