The 2008 Farm and Ranch Survey is out!


The USDA has released the results of the 2008 Farm and Ranch Irrigation Survey. The survey is taken every five years nationwide. Much of the regional information below is based on comparison of the 2003 and 2008 surveys.

Nationwide the number of irrigated acres increased over the five year period from 52.5 million acres in 2003 to 54.9 million acres in 2008. In the Upper Colorado River Basin the number of irrigated acres held steady at about 1.4 million acres. But in California irrigated acreage declined sharply from 8.7 million acres in 2003 to 7.4 million acres in 2008.

Some of the decrease in California may be the result of extended drought. However, the bulk of the decrease is likely due to sprawl which brings housing and commercial development into areas of prime farmland. Increases in irrigated acreage occurred in the Mid-West and South; in the West – including Hawaii – irrigated acres held steady or declined.
Data on irrigation using groundwater indicate that exploitation of groundwater is on the rise nationally and in the West.  Nationally acreage irrigated from groundwater increased from 32.3 million acres in 2003 to 36.2 million acres in 2008. The increase in the Upper Colorado Basin was from 140,000 acres in 2003 to 270,000 acres in 2008. This is a rate of increase in groundwater use of about 10% per year. 

California shows the same pattern. In 2003 groundwater was used to irrigate 3.9 million acres; in 2008 this increased to 4.4 million acres – an 11% increase or a little under 2% per year. But the number of irrigation wells in use in California decreased during this same period from 62,031 in 2003 to 61,327 in 2008. The number of wells decreased even as the acres irrigated from groundwater increased.

There is a lot more data in the survey reports. The 43 data tables available on line can be used to gain diverse insights into US and western agriculture. For example, the survey indicates that direct payments to farmers are on the decline. Here are the numbers:

             Irrigation individuals and entities receiving direct government payments
                                    Total US                 Upper Colorado              California

              2003             77,565                          1822                            6,462

              2008             70,787                           644                             5,165

These numbers reflect the ongoing transition in government assistance to agriculture. Direct payments have been a sticking point in international trade talks. Brazil and other developing nations want the US to eliminate trade distorting crop payments. As a consequence, federal assistance to agriculture is being transformed: Conservation program assistance is ballooning and direct crop payments are shrinking. Unfortunately, the increase in the amount of conservation assistance to agriculture has been accompanied by manipulation of Farm Bill language and regulations resulting in conservation assistance payments which produce little or no conservation benefit.

The Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) is one of the programs which has been most manipulated to require little in real conservation benefit in exchange for substantial assistance. That may be why the amount of EQIP assistance is rising rapidly even as older conservation programs are shrinking or being phased out.   

For more on efforts by Big Ag and their allies in Congress to remove conservation from the conservation programs see my January 29, 2009 post.

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