Despite conservation practices, sometimes droughts are too much

The 2021 crop season proved an exceptional one, calling ­for exceptional measures by many farmers, especially when it came to irrigation. In fact, R.D. Offutt Farms was among many growers who were forced to use more water than the state allotted in order to keep crops alive, a rare break from a longstanding tradition of underutilization of water. But how did it happen?

Farmers may best remember the summer of 2021 for the record-breaking drought, the likes of which hadn’t been seen in decades. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) website notes the drought was “as serious as anything experienced in 40 years.”

Farmers rely heavily on rainfall to water the crops, but when there’s not enough water – or when there’s no water – we have to rely on other sources. And, in that historic summer, we relied on those other sources quite a bit.

When rainfall is all but absent, farmers rely on wells that tap into either surface water or ground water to irrigate crops. The DNR regulates these wells through the provision of water use permits, which establish a limit or appropriation to how much water a farmer can use. These appropriations generally provide farmers with enough water to care for their crops but there are times when even those allocations are not enough. The summer of 2021 was one of those times.

Many farmers who irrigate reported going over water appropriation limits to save their crops in 2021 and our farms were among them. We did so even though we rely on the latest technology to use only the necessary amount of water and not a drop more. Across our fields, we use soil moisture sensors to predict water needs, along with center-pivot systems with drop-down low-pressure nozzles to conserve water and power. These technologies, along with sound farming practices, have helped us to establish a strong history of water conservation.

In fact, data from the DNR shows that from 1992-2021, RDO Farms has used significantly less than our total allotted amount of water; we’ve been under the allocation 97% of the time. We are just shy of that perfect score only due to exceptional years like 2021.

We take seriously our compliance with all water use permitting. One of the requirements of holding a water appropriation permit is measuring monthly water use and reporting total water use yearly.

Even with our conservation practices in place, the drought was just too much. Had we failed to water our crops, we would have also failed to provide to our customers and the hungry public they feed.

We also knew that keeping the crops safe and healthy was the best thing we could do for the soil, this year and in future years. We are committed to soil health best practices, including field rotation partnerships with other local family farmers whereby we achieve an average rotation of four years per field.

After six decades of farming, we certainly know we can’t control the weather. What we can control is how we respond and adapt. By remaining flexible and conscious of our resources, we have been able to weather the storms, or in the case of 2021, the absence of them.