Water, it doesn’t just grow on trees!…

Written by: Marvin Baker

Call it climate change, call it a long-term weather cycle, you can even call it a coincidence. We can argue about it all day and make it a political football. But there is no doubt water is becoming a serious issue in the western United States, despite recent heavy rain and snow in California.

This drought phenomenon has been discussed, on record, here in North Dakota, for at least 20 years, but people appear to be disinterested.

In 2003, a group of North Dakota and eastern Montana farmers attended a first meeting of its kind at the Williston Research Extension Center that outlined a shortage of water out west. That meeting focused on the Colorado River and it’s depletion.
The angle of the meeting was such that producers ought to start thinking about commercially growing some of the crops commonly grown in California and Arizona that could easily grow here. Carrots, onions, broccoli, cabbage and garlic were among the choices listed.

Since that time, there have been numerous lawsuits because of the depletion of the Colorado River. Whether you agree or not, the water in that river has become quite precious. It supplies the entire city of Los Angeles as well as numerous other cities in California, Nevada and Arizona.

It’s also a major irrigation pipeline and that’s why the presenters at the Ernie French Center in Williston were so adamant about putting a bug in the ear of northern farmers. Thousand-cow dairies should also be mentioned here. If you’ve ever been around a dairy farm, you know they use an awful lot of water. Now, image 1,000 cows on a dairy farm.
Fast forward to now. The city of Scottsdale, Arizona is being sued by the community of Del Rio because Scottsdale had been supplying water to Del Rio until now. Scottsdale city leadership has decided that the water for their city is too precious to share with Del Rio.

Unfortunately, Del Rio doesn’t have an alternate water supply and one homeowner said his water supply will dry up in two weeks. There are also vineyards at Del Rio that need to be irrigated. What happens to them? Arizona doesn’t receive enough rain, so they will, in effect, dry up without that water.

This unstable circumstance in the southwest could be a gold mine for North Dakota and eastern Montana. There appears to be plenty of water here, well maybe not like Indiana or Ohio, but enough to sustain most crops without irrigation.
So why aren’t dairy farms popping up here? Why aren’t more farmers switching over to crops like onions and carrots? Why do we continue the status quo, appearing to ignore what is happening in the southwest?
Experts say it’s because farmers on the northern Great Plains are established and have spent beaucoup dineros on equipment.

There is, however, an answer for that. Professors at the University of California-Davis have gone on record to say they would be willing to assist with transition, at least with their knowlege of what they know from growing crops in California.
It’s unclear what the Williston Research Extension Center’s stance is on this issue today. But, if enough people were interested, they would certainly take the lead from UC-Davis to get things up and running across the northern Great Plains, one would think.

There are a few producers who have been successful growing vegetables on a large scale in North Dakota. Onions, cabbage, carrots, pumpkins and even mint have all grown well here. So why doesn’t it continue? It’s just a lot easier to take wheat and barley to the elevator.

In reality, farmers don’t have the means to establish markets themselves or to process said products for shipment. That might be over the heads of leadership at UC-Davis, but that’s what needs to happen in this chicken and egg scenario.
Potentially there’s a lot of money that could be made. As an example, the net gain on an acre of wheat is about $40 and barley is $27. The net gain on an acre of onions is $1,200. The net gain on garlic is $2,100. Net gain on cabbage is about $4,300. And pumpkins have a wide range of profit potential, from $1,500 an acre up to $6,000.

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