Drought of 2012 has farmers thinking irrigation


Wayne Kiel, a blueberry farmer in Ottawa County, is considering irrigation options for the more than 200 acres he farms. Kiel avoided a frost-related disaster in the spring by irrigating his blueberry crop, but this summer’s drought brought a whole new set of problems. Photo by Johnny Quirin

As farms get bigger and more capital intensive, and commodity crop prices keep rising, irrigation has become more important to the West Michigan agricultural industry.

Then there was the drought of 2012, which was like throwing gasoline on a smoldering fire.

Several farmers have approached The Bank of Holland lately, inquiring about financing for new or expanded irrigation systems, according to Gary Palmitier, a vice president at the bank who was hired specifically to grow its agricultural loans business.

Modern agriculture is a capital-intensive industry, as many farmers are quick to point out, and pivot irrigation of crops is one of those big-ticket items, according to Palmitier. He said there are often separate cost factors involved: the cost of a new well, for instance, and of the actual irrigation equipment.

Pivot irrigation is the rotating arrangement of large diameter aluminum pipes that can spray water on a 60-acre circular area. Palmitier said a single pivot system is generally estimated to cost about $800 per acre. The agricultural extension service of Auburn University in Alabama estimates the basic cost of a single-pivot, 60-acre system at approximately $35,000, plus another $10,000 for freight and installation. That does not include the cost of the water and electricity for pumps and the motorized rotation of the system.

Then there is the cost of a well, which in some cases has to be big enough to supply three pivot systems at once.

“We’re talking probably about 60 grand for the well alone,” said Palmitier. The largest wells, designed to supply three pivots, range from 8 to 12 inches in diameter. By comparison, most new homes in the countryside in Ottawa County have wells 4 inches in diameter and often don’t need to go much deeper than 50 feet. Irrigation wells may need to go to a depth of 200 or 300 feet to the lowest aquifer, where the potential flow volume is suitable, added Palmitier.

One farmer who has spoken to The Bank of Holland is Wayne Kiel of Blueberry Heritage Farms on Blair Street in Holland Township. Kiel raises a couple hundred acres of blueberries in different locations in Ottawa County, plus 16 acres of cranberries — he is one of very few cranberry growers in Michigan.

The summer of 2012 brought “probably, by far, the worst drought that I’ve ever seen, and I’ve been on this blueberry farm since 1955,” said Kiel.

2012 was “a double whammy,” he said, starting with the extraordinarily early warm spell in March that started all fruit and berries blossoming far too early to escape a killing frost. Normally, anti-frost measures in West Michigan agriculture don’t begin until May.

“We had to start frost protection by April 1 and normally that’s only done for four or five nights,” said Kiel. But in this case, it went on for 33 of 45 nights — “and we use water for frost protection.”

This spring, news reports in West Michigan included images of blueberries encrusted with ice, the result of water sprayed over the bushes from sprinkler systems on nights when frost threatened.

According to the MSU Extension, irrigation sprinklers can protect plants from frost damage because a small amount of heat is released as water changes from a liquid to a solid. The water required can range from 40 to 90 gallons per minute, per acre, according to the Cooperative Extension Service at West Virginia University.

It worked — at least, in the case of blueberries, with Kiel noting he saved most of his crop by spraying it with water.

The overall blueberry crop in West Michigan was not nearly as damaged by frost as the apple and other tree fruit crops. Saving the blueberries obviously took a lot of water.

“Then we went into the driest summer I’ve ever seen in my whole life. We just flat didn’t get any rain from May on,” said Kiel. “I actually pulled a well dry.”

That well was on property in Muskegon County where he raises blueberries, and pumping it dry “was a first.” Kiel said the well did replenish itself, but it took a while, he said, and there was no irrigation for almost two weeks.

Most of his wells are shallow — some as shallow as 20 feet deep.

Kiel said he is near the Ottawa County Vocational Center, and when that neighborhood was developed — with new buildings with their own wells — “we started having problems with even our deep wells. There’s not a lot of water,” he said.

Other types of agriculture are now tapping into the aquifer in Ottawa County, too, namely for irrigating corn, soybeans and wheat. Corn production, in particular, has skyrocketed in recent years due to demand for ethanol to add to gasoline, as required by law.

But Kiel says it’s not agriculture that is putting the burden on the aquifer; he maintains it’s residential and commercial development that continues to move north from Holland.

Palmitier said the corn crop in West Michigan was smaller this year because of the drought.

However, with prices now at about $7.30 a bushel, some of the individuals who are farming 2,000 acres or more in Michigan are expanding their corn production, renting fields to grow it.

“There’s a lot of competition for farmland these days, and we’ve seen rents go up astronomically,” Palmitier said, adding that the rental cost increase has been 100 percent over the past five years.

Kiel said he was “not set up to irrigate 100 percent, and we had to irrigate 100 percent this year.”

Kiel’s solution this time was his irrigation pond, which is almost five acres in size and captures and stores rainwater. He made it deeper to increase the volume of water it could retain. He also put in an extra set of wells two years ago so that he could expand his irrigation system.

Blueberries grow best in low, sandy ground where there is a high water table. Normally, an adequate water supply for blueberries has not been an issue in the past, ‘but it’s become an issue, because everyone’s starting to irrigate,” said Kiel, adding that probably 80 percent of blueberries are irrigated now.

He said he’s been irrigating some of his berries for about 40 years, and while blueberries were planted many years ago without any regard to irrigation, that is no longer the case.

“I wouldn’t put in an acre of blueberries unless I could put irrigation with it, because you can’t afford to not have it irrigated.”

Recently, a team of researchers from Michigan State University made a presentation for the Ottawa County planning department; they said there is some historical data that may indicate the deep aquifer in Ottawa County is being pumped out faster than it can regenerate. However, the researchers and Ottawa County officials stressed that possibility was “preliminary” and more research will be required to determine exactly what is going on below ground.

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