Alan Peterson is among a growing number of Minnesota farmers are relying on irrigation to ensure they can produce a crop when the weather turns dry.
His 18 irrigators don’t reach all parts of his fields near Clear Lake in Sherburne County. So when he recently shucked an ear of corn from one of those dusty patches, it had only about a dozen kernels. That’s not surprising given that his last good rain fell July 9.
“I’ve got 240 acres of irrigated corn and 100 acres of dry-land corn,” Peterson said. “If I had 340 acres of all dry land, I wouldn’t be combining hardly any corn this year.”
So far this year, farmers have applied for 466 irrigation permits, Minnesota Public Radio reported Monday. That’s more than twice the number in all of last year.
There’s not enough data yet to show whether irrigation threatens groundwater supplies in some areas of Minnesota, said Jason Moeckel, who oversees the monitoring and analysis of water resources for the Department of Natural Resources. But he said he’s concerned about the cumulative impact because so many of the applications are coming from the same area.
Permit applications from just seven central Minnesota counties – Stearns, Otter Tail, Pope, Morrison, Swift, Wadena and Kandiyohi – account for more than half of all of this year’s permit applications. One reason is the sandy soil of central Minnesota doesn’t hold moisture very well.
The Legislature this year provided funding to accelerate an analysis of the state’s groundwater resources. Lawmakers also changed the way the DNR handles permits. Farmers who want to drill a new well must seek preliminary approval from the DNR, and there’s a better chance officials will come back with some restrictions, such as limiting the amount of water they can pump or requiring them to install a monitoring well to test for possible problems.
Irrigation and water conservation come up frequently when Dan Martens with University of Minnesota Extension talks with farmers in Stearns, Benton and Morrison counties. He said the data being generated on groundwater will help because farmers don’t want to invest in new wells unless they know they’re going to be reliable.
Minnesotans can expect to see irrigators going strong in much of the state for the next several weeks. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, just over half of Minnesota is counties are experiencing moderate to severe drought.