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California farmers shifted to groundwater when drought reduced surface water availability

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Prolonged drought generally results in large reductions in the quantity of surface water delivered, affecting farm production systems that depend heavily on surface water for irrigation. Groundwater may substitute as a source for irrigation water when the availability of surface water declines. For example, although most farmers in California’s main agricultural areas rely on surface water for the largest share of their irrigation needs, many parts of the State have sufficient groundwater reserves to provide a partial buffer against the impacts of drought. However, recurring drought and groundwater “overdraft”—when the amount of water extracted is greater than the amount of water entering the aquifer—have resulted in large declines in aquifer levels in some areas. This chart appears in the June 2017 Amber Waves feature, "Farmers Employ Strategies To Reduce Risk of Drought Damages."

Large-scale farms had the biggest share of irrigated acres and water use in 2013

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

In 2013, large-scale U.S. irrigated farms, those with $1 million or more in annual farm sales, accounted for most (about 79 percent) of the value of irrigated farm production. Large-scale farms also accounted for over half of the irrigated acres in the open (AIO) and about 60 percent of applied water. These farms dominate these characteristics largely because their size allows them to spread costs over many more acres. For example, in the West, irrigation pumping costs per acre for large-scale farms generally average about half that for low-sales farms, those with under $150,000 in farm sales. In total, U.S. farms irrigated about 55.4 million acres, which required the application of more than 88.5 million acre-feet (MAF) of water—equivalent to about 28.8 trillion gallons. The irrigation of AIO accounted for nearly all the water use (98 percent). Crops irrigated on AIO include corn, wheat, and soybeans as well as vegetables, berries, and nut trees. This chart appears in the June 2017 Amber Waves data feature, "Understanding Irrigated Agriculture."

Drought is typically the largest single driver of crop disaster assistance and indemnity payments

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

At any given time, some portion of the country faces drought conditions. In recent years, large areas of the United States have experienced prolonged drought, with significant impacts across entire agricultural sectors. A major drought can reduce crop yields, lead farmers to cut back planted or harvested acreage, reduce livestock productivity, and increase costs of production inputs such as animal feed or irrigation water. Since the Dust Bowl in the 1930s, drought has been an important focus of U.S. farm policy. Early Federal policy mitigated farmers’ drought-induced hardships primarily by providing ad hoc disaster assistance in response to a drought. With changes to the Federal crop insurance program in the 1990s, the emphasis of farm programs shifted from ad hoc disaster assistance to risk management, with a greater reliance on crop insurance to compensate farmers for drought losses. As a result, drought has been the largest individual driver of Federal indemnity payments and disaster assistance for over four decades. This chart appears in the June 2017 Amber Waves feature, "Farmers Employ Strategies To Reduce Risk of Drought Damages."

Use of pressure-sprinkler systems for irrigation has increased in the Western United States

Friday, August 11, 2017

There are two main types of irrigation systems: gravity and pressurized irrigation. Gravity irrigation uses the force of gravity and field borders or furrows to distribute water across a field. Pressurized irrigation, on the other hand, delivers water to the field under pressure in lateral, hand-move, and center-pivot pipe systems with attached sprinklers. In the 17 most Western States—where water use for agriculture was greatest—total irrigated acres and total water use remained relatively stable between 1984 and 2013, the latest data available. However, the share of water applied using gravity systems steadily declined from 71 percent in 1984 to 41 percent in 2013. Meanwhile, the share using pressure-sprinkler systems steadily increased from 28 percent in 1984 to 59 percent in 2013. Irrigated acres followed similar trends, with acreage using gravity systems declining over time and pressure-sprinkler systems increasing. During that period of time, irrigators shifted to using more pressure-sprinkler systems to improve their irrigation efficiency and to reduce irrigation costs. This chart appears in the June 2017 Amber Waves data feature, "Understanding Irrigated Agriculture."

Large-scale farms had the biggest share of irrigated acres and water use in 2013

Monday, June 12, 2017

The irrigation of agricultural land varies across farm sizes. Most irrigated farms in 2013 (about two-thirds) were low-sales operations with under $150,000 in annual gross cash farm income (GCFI). Low-sales farms that irrigate average less than 50 irrigated crop acres per farm—compared to 1,200 acres for large-scale irrigated farms with $1 million or more in GCFI. However, large-scale farms accounted for over half of irrigated acres, 60 percent of applied water, and 79 percent of the value of irrigated farm production. Large-scale farms dominate these characteristics because their size allows them to spread costs over many more acres (compared to other farms). For example, irrigation pumping costs for large-scale farms in the West generally average about half that for low-sales farms. In 2013, U.S. farms irrigated about 55.4 million acres and applied more than 88.5 million acre-feet (MAF) of water, equivalent to about 28.8 trillion gallons. The irrigation of cropland—which included crops like corn, wheat, and soybeans—accounted for nearly all the water use (98 percent). This chart appears in the June 2017 Amber Waves data feature, "Understanding Irrigated Agriculture."

Western irrigation has become more efficient over time

Friday, May 5, 2017

Efficient irrigation systems can help maintain farm profitability in an era of increasingly limited and more costly water supplies. More efficient gravity irrigation uses the force of gravity and field borders or furrows to distribute water across a field. It may also use laser-leveling to improve flood irrigation. More efficient pressure-sprinkler irrigation delivers water under lower pressure sprinklers and systems using drip/trickle tubes and micro-spray nozzles. The efficiency of irrigation systems is particularly important in the Western States—such as Nebraska, California, and Texas—where water demand for agriculture is greatest and diminishing water supplies are expected to affect future water availability. Data from USDA’s Farm and Ranch Irrigation Survey (FRIS) show that irrigated agriculture in the West has become more efficient over time. More efficient irrigation systems (both gravity and pressure-sprinkler) were used on about 36 percent of total irrigated acres in the West in 1994, but increased to nearly half by 2013. More efficient pressure-sprinkler irrigation alone accounted for about 15 percent in 1994, but more than 37 percent in 2013. The share of acres using more efficient gravity systems peaked in the late 1990s, but then declined as farmers increasingly turned to the even more efficient pressure-sprinkler systems. This chart is based on the ERS data product U.S. Irrigated Agriculture in the United States, released April 2017.

California's surface water deliveries dip well below longrun averages

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

California is now entering the fifth year of a major drought, and by many measures, 2014 and 2015 have been the worst years of the drought for California agriculture. In California, measures of exposure to local water shortages are only part of how the drought is affecting farms. California agriculture relies heavily on irrigation, and much of the irrigation water is supplied by large-scale State and Federal water projects that store, transport, and deliver water across hundreds of miles. The two largest overarching mechanisms for delivering surface water in California are the State Water Project (SWP) and the Federal Central Valley Project (CVP). On average, 70 percent of annual State Water Project supplies go to urban users and 30 percent to agricultural users. In contrast, the Central Valley Project, managed by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, allocates, on average, about 70 percent of its delivered water to agriculture. Relative to longrun averages, deliveries from both projects were down modestly in 2012 and 2013, and then dropped dramatically in 2014, with similar delivery shortfalls for 2015. In an historical context, the current drought is at least as bad, from a deliveries perspective, as the 1977 and 1991-1992 droughts. While surface water from these projects is delivered through much of the State, the impacts of these reductions are most pronounced in the Central Valley of California. Farms in Southern California receive much of their surface water from the Colorado River, which has not been as heavily impacted by the current drought. This chart is found in California Drought: Farm and Food Impacts on the ERS website, February 2016.

More efficient irrigation methods are being adopted on farmland in the Western United States

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

About 75 percent of irrigated cropland in the United States is located in the 17 western-most contiguous States, based on USDA’s 2013 Farm and Ranch Irrigation Survey (the most recent available). Between 1984 and 2013, while the amount of irrigated land in the West has remained fairly stable (at about 40 million acres) and the amount of water applied has been mostly flat (between 70 and 76 million acre-feet per year), the use of more efficient irrigation systems to deliver the water has increased. In 1984, 71 percent of Western crop irrigation water was applied using gravity irrigation systems that tend to use water inefficiently. By 2013, operators used gravity systems to apply just 41 percent of water for crop production, while pressure-sprinkler irrigation systems (including drip, low-pressure sprinkler, or low-energy precision application systems), which can apply water more efficiently, accounted for 59 percent of irrigation water use and about 60 percent of irrigated acres. This chart is found in the ERS topic page on Irrigation & Water Use, updated October 2015.

Not all California's crops have seen declines in acreage during drought

Monday, December 14, 2015

Long-term trends in California agriculture reflect shifting production, which may have implications for water use during droughts. Annually harvested crops such as cotton, corn, and wheat are on a downward trend and have seen a 31-percent reduction in planted acreage in California since 2012. Similarly, rice acreage has dropped 27 percent during the past 2 years (2013-15) of the drought. California’s hay and vegetable acreage has been more stable. In contrast, almonds, grapes, and walnuts acreage is on a strong upward trend that does not appear to have slowed during the drought. Orchards and vineyards require larger capital investments than annual crops, and because of the potential loss of that investment, orchard/vineyard owners are generally less willing to reduce water usage during droughts. However, orchards and vineyards are also more dependent upon ground-water than volatile surface-water supplies. California orchard/vineyard farmers are also more likely to have invested in more-efficient irrigation systems, such as low-pressure sprinkler and micro-irrigation systems that reduce water lost to evaporation, runoff, and deep percolation, thereby increasing the share of applied water that is beneficially used by the crop. This chart is found in the November 2015 Amber Waves statistic, “Long-Term Response to Water Scarcity in California.”

Increased productivity now the primary source of growth in world agricultural output

Friday, October 16, 2015

The average annual rate of global agricultural output growth slowed in the 1970s and 1980s, then accelerated in the 1990s and 2000s. In the latest period estimated (2001-12), global output of total crop and livestock commodities was expanding at an average rate of 2.5 percent per year. In the decades prior to 1990, most output growth came about from intensification of input use (i.e., using more labor, capital, and material inputs per acre of agricultural land). Bringing new land into agriculture production and extending irrigation to existing agricultural land were also important sources of growth. This changed over the last two decades, as input growth slowed. In 2001-12, improvements in productivity—getting more output from existing resources—accounted for about two-thirds of the total growth in agricultural output worldwide, reflecting the use of new technology and changes in management practices by agricultural producers around the world. This chart is based on the ERS data product, International Agricultural Productivity, updated October 2015.

California's irrigation varies by crop

Monday, April 27, 2015

The California drought continues into 2015—as of April, 44 percent of the State is classified under the exceptional drought rating (meaning that there are exceptional and widespread crop/pasture losses; and shortages of water in reservoirs, streams, and wells creating water emergencies, as determined by U.S. Drought Monitor, produced by the interdepartmental U.S. Government National Integrated Drought Information System [NIDIS]). Farmers in California grow a wide variety of crops using off-farm surface water, groundwater, and—to a limited extent—on-farm surface water. Crops such as rice, cotton, and beans that are most dependent on off-farm surface water are the most vulnerable to reductions in snowpack and reservoir storage due to the ongoing drought. In addition, farmers use a variety of irrigation technologies to apply water. Farms that use the least amount of gravity irrigation, such as orchards/vineyards/tree nuts, vegetables, and berries, are the most able to limit evaporation losses during the drought. In many cases, the most capital intensive crops and irrigation systems, such as almond orchards using drip irrigation systems, have been strategically located over the most reliable water supplies, which is why these crops are more likely to continue irrigating during the drought. The crops that represent the predominant sources of agricultural water use—orchards, rice, hay, and vegetables—consume large amounts of water primarily because they are grown on large amounts of acreage. This chart visualizes information found in California Drought: Farm and Food Impacts in the ERS newsroom, updated April 2015.

Productivity rises in global agriculture

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

By using new technologies, farmers can produce more food using fewer economic resources at lower costs. One measure of technological change is total factor productivity (TFP). Increased TFP means that fewer economic resources (land, labor, capital and materials) are needed to produce a given amount of economic output. However, TFP does not account for the environmental impacts of agricultural production; resources that are free to the farm sector (such as water quality, greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity) are not typically included in TFP. As a result, TFP indexes may over- or under-estimate the actual resource savings from technological change. Growth in global agricultural TFP began to accelerate in the 1980s, led by large developing countries like China and Brazil. This growth helped keep food prices down even as global demand surged. This chart uses data available in International Agricultural Productivity on the ERS website, updated October 2014.

Western U.S. irrigated agriculture is shifting to more efficient methods

Monday, September 8, 2014

About 75 percent of irrigated cropland in the U.S. is located in 17 western States based on the 2008 Farm and Ranch Irrigation Survey (the most recent available), conducted by USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service. While the amount of irrigated land in the West has increased by over 2 million acres since 1984, the amount of water applied has declined slightly as irrigation systems have shifted toward more efficient methods. In 1984, 71 percent of Western crop irrigation water was applied using gravity irrigation systems that tend to use water inefficiently. By 2008, operators used gravity systems to apply just 48 percent of water for crop production while pressure-sprinkler irrigation systems, which can apply water more efficiently, accounted for 51.5 percent of irrigation water use. In 2008, much of the acreage using pressure irrigation systems included drip, low-pressure sprinkler, or low-energy precision application systems. Improved pressure-sprinkler systems resulted in remarkably stable agricultural water use over the past 25 years, as fewer acre-feet were required to irrigate an increasing number of acres. This chart is found in Water Conservation in Irrigated Agriculture: Trends and Challenges in the Face of Emerging Demands, EIB-99, September 2012.

Crop insurance indemnities and disaster assistance payments reflect the impact of drought on crop farms

Friday, February 28, 2014

Drought is the leading single cause of production losses to crop farms, followed by excess moisture, hail, freezes, and heat. Over the past four decades, a portion of the farm losses from all these weather-related causes have been covered by a combination of crop insurance and disaster assistance payments. Over this period, crop insurance has gradually grown in significance and is now a major component of the Federal safety net for crop farmers. The rise in total insurance indemnity payments is due to a combination of expanded enrollment in crop insurance, increased liabilities due to higher yields and commodity prices, and a series of major droughts in recent decades, capped by the 2012 drought. More than 80 percent of the acres of major field crops planted in the United States are now covered by Federal crop insurance, which can help to mitigate yield or revenue losses for covered farms. Droughts also have a major impact on livestock producers, principally through their effect on feed prices. (The accompanying chart does not include livestock-related assistance or pasture/rangeland indemnity payments.) This chart updates one found in The Role of Conservation Programs in Drought Risk Adaptation, ERR-148, April 2013.

Increased productivity now the primary source of growth in world agriculture

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The average annual rate of global agricultural growth slowed in the 1970s and 1980s but then accelerated in the 1990s and 2000s. In the decades prior to 1990, most output growth came about from intensification of input use (i.e., using more labor, capital, and material inputs per acre of agricultural land). Bringing new land into agriculture production and extending irrigation to existing agricultural land were also important sources of growth. Over the last two decades, however, the rate of growth in agricultural resources (land, labor, capital, etc.) slowed. In 2001-10, improvements in productivity—getting more output from existing resources—accounted for more than three-quarters of the total growth in global agricultural output, reflecting the use of new technology and changes in management by agricultural producers around the world. This chart is found in the ERS data product, International Agricultural Productivity, on the ERS website, updated November 2013.

Emergency haying and grazing on land in the CRP peaked in 2012

Friday, August 23, 2013

USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) engages farmers in long-term (10- to 15-year) contracts to establish conservation covers on environmentally sensitive land. As of June 2013, about 27 million acres of farmland were enrolled in the program. An important provision within CRP is that under certain circumstances, farmers can utilize their CRP lands for managed or emergency haying and grazing. The haying and grazing of CRP land can provide important benefits to farmers, particularly during major droughts when other sources of livestock feed are scarce, and, if done correctly, can also improve the environmental value of the conservation covers. During the 2012 drought, farmers conducted emergency haying and grazing on almost 2.8 million acres and managed haying and grazing on another 700,000 acres. This chart is found in the Amber Waves article, “The Role of Conservation Program Design in Drought-Risk Adaptation,” July 2013.

Simulating the interactions between climate adaptation and conservation program design

Monday, May 20, 2013

Farmers can adapt to their local climate in many ways, including through participation in USDA programs. In regions of the country that face higher levels of drought risk, farmers are more likely to offer eligible land for enrollment in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). As a consequence, CRP is both more competitive in these regions and drought-prone counties are more likely to face a binding CRP acreage enrollment cap. When counties are near their enrollment cap, farms are less likely to offer eligible land for CRP because those offers are less likely to be accepted for enrollment. In simulations of offer rates based on observed historical data, a national increase in the county CRP acreage enrollment cap to 35 percent of cropland in each county (from the current level of 25 percent), results in more offers from eligible farmers in drought prone regions of the Great Plains and the Intermountain West. This map is found in the ERS report, The Role of Conservation Programs in Drought Risk Adaptation, ERR-148, April 2013.

Improving water-use efficiency remains a challenge for U.S. irrigated agriculture

Monday, May 6, 2013

U.S. agriculture accounts for 80-90 percent of the Nation’s consumptive water use (water lost to the environment by evaporation, crop transpiration, or incorporation into products). The 17 Western States account for nearly three-quarters of U.S. irrigated agriculture. While substantial technological innovation has already occurred in irrigation systems, significant room for improvement in farm irrigation efficiency still exists. Between 1994 and 2008, the combined share of Western irrigated acres using improved gravity-flow and low-pressure sprinkler systems has increased but the rate at which traditional irrigation systems have been replaced with more efficient, improved systems has slowed over the past decade. This chart comes from the Amber Waves September 2012 finding, Improving Water-Use Efficiency Remains a Challenge for U.S. Irrigated Agriculture.

Farm sector exposure to drought worsened during the summer of 2012

Thursday, April 4, 2013

As of mid-August 2012, 43 percent of farms in the United States were experiencing severe or greater levels of drought and another 17 percent were facing moderate levels of drought (for a description of severity levels, see droughtmonitor.unl.edu/classify). A striking aspect of the 2012 drought was how the drought rapidly increased in severity in early July, during a critical time of crop development for corn and other commodities. The chart shows the progression from mid-June to mid-August of severe or greater drought within the agricultural sector. While drought conditions eased some during early September, for most crop production, exposure to drought during June-August determined the drought’s impact on agricultural production. From mid-June to mid-August, the share of farms under severe or greater drought increased from 16 to 43 percent of all farms. Total cropland under severe or greater drought increased from 20 to 57 percent, while total value of crops exposed increased from 16 to 50 percent. As of mid-July, areas with over half of the value of cattle production were already exposed to severe drought; by mid-August, almost two-thirds were exposed. This chart is based on the table found in U.S. Drought 2012: Farm and Food Impacts on the ERS website, updated March 2013.

Irrigated acres are concentrated in relatively few States

Friday, October 26, 2012

In 2007, 56.6 million farmland acres were irrigated across the United States. About 16.6 percent of U.S. harvested cropland acres were irrigated, while only 1.2 percent of pastureland acres were irrigated. Nearly three-quarters of U.S. irrigated agriculture occurred in the 17 contiguous Western States, including 73 percent of harvested irrigated cropland and 94 percent of irrigated pastureland. For 2007, 12 leading irrigation States accounted for 77.3 percent of all irrigated acres, including harvested cropland, pasture, and other lands. Nebraska's 8.6 million irrigated acres led all other States (15.1 percent of the U.S. total), followed by California with 8.0 million acres (14.2 percent), and Texas with 5 million acres (8.9 percent). Two Eastern States-Arkansas and Florida-were among the 12 leading irrigation States. Arkansas accounted for 4.5 million acres (7.9 percent) and Florida for 1.6 million acres (2.7 percent) of total U.S. irrigated acres. This chart comes from Water Conservation in Irrigated Agriculture: Trends and Challenges in the Face of Emerging Demand, EIB-99, September 2012.

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