Extension irrigation educator to face the new normal: Lower aquifers, higher crop production
By Ryan McGeeney
The Cooperative Extension Service
U of A System Division of Agriculture
- 18-year extension agent named new irrigation education specialist
- Delta faces challenges as aquifer levels drop, food demands rise
- Extension and Arkansas NRCS cooperate on 50/50 funding for position
LITTLE ROCK — Mike Hamilton knows he will have to hit the ground running.
Hamilton, the newly minted extension irrigation education area specialist for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture, was hired for the position, several years after noted irrigation specialist Phil Tacker retired from a similar position in 2009.
After graduating from the university in 1997, Hamilton spent nearly two decades working as an extension agent, working in both Poinsett and Crittenden counties. He worked closely with Tacker for some of that time.
“I still call Phil fairly often, just to mull things over,” Hamilton said. “He’s a great guy and I’m honored to call him my friend.”
But as of May 1, the state's irrigation and water management education priorities are, in large part, Hamilton’s main concern. He said that despite Arkansas' reputation as a major agricultural production state, he had begun to feel that farmland that sometimes fell short of its full production potential might benefit from incorporating some simple irrigation management practices.
“I've just noticed the last 10, 12 years that irrigation has been a big gap,” Hamilton said. “We have producers who say they can't get over 40 bushels of beans an acre, or they can't make over 160-70 bushel corn, etc.; they're hitting what they think are their limits.
“I honestly feel that we can increase yields, as well as conserve resources, by educating our producers on irrigation efficiency. There is a difference between irrigating our crops and watering them,” he said.
Hamilton said that while Tacker, who was known for tirelessly traveling the state and working with extension agents and growers face-to-face, did much to modernize irrigation practices in Arkansas and beyond, that growth has slowed in the years since Tacker's retirement.
“We didn't go backwards, but we really just stayed where we were,” Hamilton said. “There were a few agents really getting involved. We were doing our county programs, and that was kind of expanding from our counties to our neighboring counties, and growing, but nothing to the scale that it is when you've got somebody that's actually pushing this area-wide, as far as the Delta.”
Rick Cartwright, associate director of agriculture and Natural Resources for the Division of Agriculture, said the decision to hire a new irrigation educator was born from two growing pressure facing Arkansas producers, particularly those farming in the Delta region: diminishing aquifers and rising fuel prices.
“Our groundwater, at least in certain aquifers in the Delta, has been declining over the years,” Cartwright said. “That's a concern for everybody, as to whether we’ll have enough ground water to really meet our crop production needs through 2050 and beyond.
“Secondly, the cost of energy to irrigate has been a big pressure on farmers’ bottom line at times,” he said. While crop prices fluctuate, the total cost of fuel needed to power water pumps has steadily increased, as groundwater levels decline.
“The need to improve efficiency of irrigation — of water usage — has really been a building concern,” Cartwright said.
When the opportunity to hire a new irrigation educator arrived, he said, it was Hamilton's years of practical knowledge in crop irrigation that made him a strong candidate.
“Mike had a lot of direct experience with growers, with water management planning, with presentations, with in-field demonstrations on irrigation efficiency,” he said. “For this hands-on type work, and with his communication skills, he was the ideal person for this job.”
Cartwright described Hamilton's position as a “pilot program.” In an effort to meet both conservation and production goals throughout the state, extension staffers reached out to other stakeholders, including commodity boards and other state and federal agencies, with shared objectives in 2014.
“A little over a year ago, we started talking with stakeholders about this seriously, about how we could increase our education efforts to get more farmers to adopt increased irrigation efficiency practices,” Cartwright said. Partial funding for the new irrigation education program was contributed by the Soybean Promotion Board, the Arkansas Rice Research and Promotion Board and the Arkansas Corn and Grain Sorghum Board.
“The idea was that the person's sole job would be to teach growers how to improve irrigation efficiency on their farm, and to teach county agents and consultants how to advise growers about these practices and technology,” Cartwright said.
About the same time, the Arkansas Natural Resources Conservation Service expressed an increasing need for someone with technical expertise in irrigation efficiency to help the growers develop and implement irrigation water management plans.
Walt Delp, state conservation engineer for the Arkansas NRCS, said that over the past several years, his agency had become increasingly involved with irrigation water management as a way to reach efficiency and conservation goals.
“In the past, we've funded a lot of structural practices, but now we're ale to fund some actual management practices,” Delp said. “Those would be how the producer actually manages their water. One of the ways we're doing that is through inventorying and evaluating the existing resources that are out there, and then determining the best use of those resources.”
Delp said that in conversations with Cartwright, he “realized education is part of that, but also that we needed to develop our technical assistance with doing the irrigation water management plans.”
Delp said that Hamilton, in his partnership with Arkansas NRCS, will be expected to work with farmers who currently have irrigation management contracts with the agency in several of the state's northeastern counties, including Mississippi, Poinsett, Craighead, Green, Clay, Independence, Lawrence and Jackson counties. The Arkansas NRCS will fund about 50 percent of the irrigation educator program.
Hamilton’s new role will work in concert with other extension irrigation researchers and specialists, including Christopher Henry, an assistant professor of biological and agricultural engineering for the university in Stuttgart, who recently co-developed a software application that helps producers make logistical calculations for multiple-inlet rice irrigation.
Hamilton said he had already been contacted by several growers in the White River Valley area seeking help to design a furrow irrigation system for about 20,000 acres of farmland.
“We could hit home runs everywhere,” Hamilton said. “But to get such a call in the first week of work about 20,000 acres, that kind of catches your eye.”
Hamilton said he sees his role as one of helping Arkansas farmers reach their own goals, rather than trying to attract them to his own.
“Arkansas producers have always been the best stewards of the land,” he said. “This is just another way we can work together to continue that for years to come.”
For more information about irrigation, contact your county extension office or visit www.uaex.edu/environment-nature/water/irrigation.aspx.
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Media Contact: Mary Hightower
Dir. of Communication Services
U of A Division of Agriculture
Cooperative Extension Service