The United States is running out of fresh water. Population growth is increasing the demand for water consumption, putting great pressure on the country’s water resources. Scientists predict that within the next 50 years, many regions of the United States will see their freshwater resources reduced by more than one-third.
A study published in Earth’s Future revealed that by 2071, nearly half of the 204 freshwater basins in the United States will be unable to meet the country’s water demand. With all the heavy rains and flooding hitting the country, it’s easy to assume that we have more than enough water to meet the nation’s needs. But the demand for water far outstrips the supply, which means the United States will face an impending water crisis in the near future. You may be wondering where all our water goes. Everything we do, from manufacturing to construction to washing, requires water consumption. But most of our water is used to irrigate farmland for crops that feed an ever-growing population.
Irrigation and Water Use
Agriculture is a water-intensive process. You’d be surprised how much water it takes to grow the food on your table. It takes one gallon of water to grow one almond nut, 60 gallons to grow one avocado and 660 gallons to make the ingredients for a single hamburger. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), farmland irrigation consumes up to 80 percent of the nation’s freshwater resources. Since agriculture consumes much of the nation’s water supply, improving irrigation efficiency can help avert a water crisis.
Improving irrigation efficiency
A small increase in irrigation efficiency can have a significant impact on the country’s future water supply. Reducing irrigation water use by just two percent can help prevent one-third of U.S. freshwater basins from depleting over the next 50 years. Fortunately, there are many strategies farmers can use to improve irrigation efficiency and conserve more water. Modern irrigation systems and sustainable farming practices can help avert a national water crisis.
Efficient irrigation systems, such as drip irrigation, can help farmers farm more sustainably. Drip irrigation can reduce water use by more than 60% compared to sprinklers, helping farmers grow more food with much less water. However, drip irrigation systems can be expensive to install and require a lot of maintenance, making them cost-effective only for high-value crops.
If you can’t install a drip irrigation system on your farm, don’t worry. There are other sustainable farming practices that can help you improve irrigation efficiency. Practicing organic farming methods is another effective strategy that can help you get the most out of every drop of water.
How does organic farming improve irrigation efficiency?
Organic agriculture focuses on improving soil to improve irrigation efficiency and conserve more water. Organic farming techniques such as composting and mulching improve soil health. Healthy soil rich in organic matter has a better moisture holding capacity, which means you will need to irrigate your crops less frequently. Good quality soil acts like a sponge, holding and releasing water for crop roots when conditions become dry.
Improving soil quality will help you produce more crops with much less water. Research by the Rodale Institute has found that organic farms have 40 percent higher crop yields than conventional farms in times of drought. Organic farming techniques that improve soil health can be used to farm more sustainably. Sustainable farming practices produce additional food with less water, feeding more people and conserving the earth’s most precious resource.
Want to improve your farm’s environmental friendliness and sustainability? Follow these sustainable organic farming practices to improve soil health and promote water conservation:
Compost is decomposed organic material traditionally made from leaves, shredded twigs and vegetable scraps. Composting is an excellent way to recycle dead leaves and other yard waste into a useful product to enrich the soil. Gardeners and farmers consider compost to be “black gold,” as the rich soil amendment provides many benefits in agriculture. Compost makes the soil easier to work with and improves its water holding properties.
How effective is compost in helping soil retain water? Soil can hold 16,500 gallons of water per acre up to one foot deep for every one percent of compost added. In other words, compost helps the soil hold a lot of moisture, which means you don’t need to water your crops as often. Compost helps plants survive prolonged periods of drought and water stress, which increases crop yields and productivity.
Now that you’ve learned how composting can improve irrigation efficiency, you’re probably thinking about adding some compost to your soil to save more water. You can buy bagged compost at the store, but we recommend that you make it at home to reduce pollution and save money. You can use and combine any of these materials to make compost at home:
- Textiles and newspapers
- Fruit and vegetable scraps
- Leaves and grass clippings
- Shredded twigs and branches
The recipe for composting is three parts browns to one part greens. Browns are plant materials that are derived from trees and include leaves, twigs, paper, etc. Greens are the fresher, juicier plants including grass and kitchen scraps. Browns contain carbon, while greens contain nitrogen, both of which are necessary for decomposition to occur.
Once you have the right ratio of brown to green (3:1), here’s what to do to make compost:
- Shred or chop large items such as twigs and branches into smaller pieces.
- In a compost garbage can or outdoor pile, pile a six- to eight-inch layer of plant material followed by a one-inch layer of soil or previously prepared compost
- Sprinkle a little water over the pile to keep the mixture moist, but not wet.
- Add organic fertilizer such as blood or feather meal to provide additional nitrogen to speed the decomposition process.
- Repeat steps (2 to 4) until your pile is three to four feet high.
- Use a garden fork to turn the mixture; turn the mixture every few days to speed up the decomposition process
- Keep the pile moist and aerated; it will take two to four months for the plant material to fully decompose and turn into compost
And voila! You’ve made your own homemade compost. Work one to two inches of your homemade compost into the top five inches of soil to increase its quality and improve your farm’s irrigation efficiency.
Diversify crop rotation
Weeds are a big problem in agriculture. These unproductive plants compete with crops for water, light and nutrients , leading to lower food production and wasting precious water resources. Suppressing weed growth is essential to save more water and improve irrigation efficiency on your farm. Diversifying crop rotations is one of the easiest and most affordable methods to keep your farm weed-free and promote water conservation.
The concept of diversifying crop rotations is simple. All you have to do is not plant the same crop in the same place year after year. Weeds thrive in environments to which they have adapted. Planting crops with different characteristics will continue to alter the soil environment, preventing weeds from adapting to your farm’s growing conditions. from Iowa State University study found that rotational diversity can decrease weed density by 65 percent, contributing to significant water savings on your farm.
Tips for managing crop rotation diversification
Crop diversity is the key to preventing weed infestation and reducing irrigation water use on your farm. How can you diversify your crop rotation to suppress weed growth? A simple approach is to divide your crops into different plant groups. The four plant groups are:
- Fruit crops: tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplants, melons.
- Leafy crops: spinach, lettuce, cabbage, herbs
- Root crops – onions, carrots, radishes, turnips
- Legumes – Beans, peas, lentils, peanuts
Alternate between different plant groups when growing crops on your farm. For example, if you are growing tomatoes and cucumbers this year, plant radishes and turnips in the same place next season. Different plant groups will create different biological, chemical and physical environments in the soil, which helps prevent weeds from adapting and thriving on your farm.
Mulch is a layer of material that is applied over the soil surface. The layer acts as a protective barrier, improving water retention and reducing evaporation of soil moisture. Mulching improves the moisture holding capacity of the soil, which reduces irrigation water use on your farm. You can use organic or inorganic materials for mulch, but we recommend organic materials as they break down into compost over time and enrich your soil.
Common organic materials you can use for mulching include:
- shredded leaves
- Wood chips
- Grass clippings
- cardboard and paper
How to apply mulch
Mulch will keep the soil from drying out, reducing the amount of water needed to irrigate your farm. So how can you obtain and apply mulch? You can buy bags of mulch at a garden center, but it’s best to make your own to reduce waste. If you have trees on your property, you can shred their dead leaves and mulch them. You can also collect and chip old Christmas trees into small wood chips to use as mulch.
It is best to apply mulch in late spring and early fall, as it helps stabilize the soil temperature during the summer and winter months. Here’s how you can mulch your soil in four easy steps:
- Use a rake to smooth the soil surface.
- Apply a two-inch-deep layer of mulch on top of the soil.
- Rake the mulch to create an even layer
- Water the mulch to cushion it and prevent it from being blown away by the wind.
And there you have it. Mulching is a very easy and affordable farming technique that can help improve irrigation efficiency on your farm. Mulch your farm twice a year to improve soil quality and save more water.
Adopt organic farming methods to improve irrigation efficiency.
Agriculture is the largest consumer of the nation’s freshwater resources. At the current rate of consumption, most of the country will face severe water shortages in the coming decades. Modern agricultural technologies are very effective in improving irrigation efficiency, but their high installation and maintenance costs make widespread adoption unattainable. Organic farming practices provide an affordable solution to improve irrigation efficiency, helping farmers use less water to grow food more sustainably.