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Irrigation has come far with help of technology

Irrigation systems with drop sprinklers dot the Hubbard County landscape. The sprinklers were designed to minimize evaporation, lower water pressure and be more environmentally friendly. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)

An irrigation clinic Thursday in Park Rapids illustrated how far beyond a sprinkler system the practice has evolved.

Irrigators learned about global markets, maximizing yield, protecting water resources, minimizing adverse impact on the environment, how to leverage crop insurance and how to survive in the volatile futures market.

The long and short of it is that agriculture is a booming business that farmers can thrive in, provided they use technology to their advantage.

"You have to keep up on everything going on," said Wes Benjamin, a Hubbard County organic farmer voted Irrigator of the Year. "I have a network of people I talk to."

Benjamin said he began farming in 10th grade. Four decades later, he said he recognizes the need for all farmers to work together as a unit to gain more clout and the necessity of pairing younger farmers with established practitioners to attain longevity.

"We don't all have to have our own operation," he said. But sharing information is imperative for survival, he added.

So, in addition to picking up a plaque, Benjamin attended to hear people like Joe Burgard talk about the global economy.

"China's gonna want our stuff for a lot of years," Burgard said. Farmers simply cannot keep up with demands for exports of corn, wheat and soybeans," the marketing specialist for AgCountry Farm Credit Services told the five-dozen attendees.

But there are downfalls to record yields of wheat and other crops, Burgard warned.

In building up that demand base, farmers must consider storage costs, when to sell, which insurance programs to participate in and how to lock in futures contracts and maximize profits, he suggested.

Maximizing returns entails crop rotation.

"There's been a pretty significant change in crop rotation," said Luke Stuewe, referring to Minnesota Department of Agriculture projects aiming to cap nitrogen concentrations in wells.

Stuewe praised RDO and Becker Farms, Hubbard County's two major irrigators, for radical changes in farming practices that will minimize the use of nitrogen fertilizers. Last year Park Rapids capped two wells because of higher than recommended levels of nitrogen.

But the city also invested in drilling a deep well to avoid the chemicals leeching into the shallower wells.

"They made a significant change financially to help the city's drinking water," Stuewe said.

He noted that septic systems have the potential to emit phosphorus into groundwater, but the recent emphasis has been on "managing our crops and fertilizer much more efficiently than we did 20 years ago."

Sandy moraines and high water tables have left many area cities susceptible to groundwater contamination, agreed Kari Tomperi Wadena County water planner, including Perham and Verndale.

And she noted the balancing act farmers must weigh irrigating in sandy soil, since crops grown in those conditions have a dire need for moisture.

Nitrates are beginning to show up in some surface waters, she cautioned.

Growth comes with more permits for wells, putting even more strain on groundwater, she said.

Putting lands under a conservation management plan and adopting water quality standards for rivers will protect each watershed in the Upper Mississippi River Basin,

Conservation innovation grants are available through numerous state agencies and she urged growers to take advantage of that financial avenue.

And technology plays a role in maximizing irrigation efficiency. Farmers can use aerial photos and overlay soil maps to see if there are coverage issues, or problems with sprinkler nozzles or pivot points that could reduce yields.

Irrigators want better technology so they can keep operations profitable while remaining sustainable, some farmers said.

Green practices can be rewarded by cost share programs; wildlife practices can also attract grant funds, said Rick Berscheid, district conservationist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Park Rapids.

Sharing best practices and monies available to improve farming methods are the reasons why Wes Benjamin sat intently in the audience.

Smart crop rotation and efficient irrigation allows farmers to replenish corn and soybean acreage supplies, Burgard said.

And when you can't outsmart Mother Nature and she gives you torrential rains and hail, that's what crop insurance is for.

"If we can maximize profits to 25 percent each year we'll be farming a long time," Burgard said.

Sarah Smith

Sarah Smith is the outdoors editor. She covers courts, business and breaking news in addition to outdoors events.

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