ALAMOSA — To increase farming efficiency and decrease water use, the Colorado Potato Administrative Committee is spearheading a subsurface irrigation pilot project with two area farmers.
On Tuesday the Rio Grande Roundtable unanimously approved $40,000 from local basin funds to support a $146,395 drip irrigation project on about 47 acres of the Beiriger and Christensen farms in the Hooper and Center area.
“The reality is we have less water to irrigate with than we used to,” said Colorado Potato Administrative Committee (CPAC) Executive Director Jim Ehrlich. “We have got to adapt somehow by taking land out of production, by being more efficient with our water.”
Ehrlich said CSU has tested drip irrigation in the San Luis Valley during previous research projects, so “we know based on results that it is do-able. The technology is there. It’s being done all over the world on many different crops.”
The cost of putting in a sub-surface irrigation system, however, can be substantial for local farmers, Ehrlich explained. It can run as much as $2,000 an acre, he said.
“It’s the initial investment that’s the drawback.”
Ross Roberts, owner of Diversity D, who will install the system, said the cost depends on factors such as the shape of a field and how close the drip lines are. He agreed with Ehrlich’s cost estimate and said typically the cost to put in one of these systems is $2,000-2,200 per acre.
However, Roberts said with the drip system on his Texas farm he is able to produce one or two more bales off a field, selling for $300-500 per bale, over what he could on a center pivot system.
“When you can nearly double the yields, you make this work,” Roberts said.
He has had his system for 19 years, and it is still operating well, he said.
Roundtable member Travis Smith thanked Ehrlich and the farmers involved in the pilot project for taking on something that has to this point only been talked about in the Valley. He said because of the water situation and the economy in the Valley, he anticipated many farmers would be looking at this demonstration project to see if it might be something that would work for them as well.
Ehrlich said the demonstration project on the Dennis Beiriger and Roger Christensen farms will be closely monitored and studied, and other farmers will be able to go look at what is going on there throughout the pilot period during this growing season. Two separate economic analyses, one for each farm, will be performed at the end of the season. CSU will perform one of the cost analyses as an in-kind contribution.
Ehrlich said this project would begin this year with installation anticipated yet this month or in April. Potatoes will be planted on the parcels in late April or early May.
He explained that on both farms, temporary shallow and permanent (12 inches deep) drip systems would be installed. By having two different sites, if something like hail should occur on one site, the demonstration project would not be entirely lost, Ehrlich said. Also, the two farms are different in other ways, such as soil types.
In addition to the roundtable, others who are providing cash and/or in-kind contributions to the project include the Christensen and Beiriger farms, CPAC, Monte Vista Co-op, Farm Fresh Direct and Diversity D.
Ehrlich said if this demonstration project proves drip irrigation is a viable method in the San Luis Valley, it could mean the difference between some farmers staying in business or not.
“Otherwise, there may not be enough CREP dollars to fund all the people who have to go out of production,” he said.
CREP (Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program), a federally funded program, is one of the tools that will be used to compensate farmers in the San Luis Valley’s first groundwater management sub-district to fallow land.
Water savings through drip irrigation will be realized through deep percolation and reduced evaporation losses, Ehrlich explained.
“We lose a lot of water through that evaporative process,” Ehrlich said. That is especially true in the windy springtime in the Valley, he added.
He said a center pivot sprinkler system is 80-85 percent efficient. That is at the nozzle.
In addition to more efficient water use, the subsurface irrigation system may produce a higher quality of crop, Ehrlich said, with less herbicides and pesticides required. For example, the drip irrigation system does not wet the entire field like sprinkler systems, he explained, so there should be fewer weeds and less need for herbicide.
Roundtable member Dale Wiescamp said Israel has been using drip irrigation for a long time, and if that country can make a desert productive through this type of system, the San Luis Valley should be able to.
“I think we are on to something that could salvage a lot of our farms, especially on the east side of this Valley in the Hooper area where they’ve got their backs against the wall” he said. “I think we’ve stumbled onto something that is terrific.”