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Crop Sustainability: “Go Southeast, Young Man?”

At an Oct. 21-23 workshop planned for Boulder, Colorado, researchers from the University of Alabama in Huntsville and their collaborators at the National Center for Atmospheric Research will meet to discuss how past patterns of crop production migrations might offer clues on food sustainability.

Richard McNider at the University of Alabama in Huntsville.

Richard McNider at the University of Alabama in Huntsville.

Photo by Michael Mercier/UAH

We think of California for fruit and vegetables, the Midwest for grain and the South for poultry and swine, but experts say it may be time to do some rethinking.

At an Oct. 21-23 workshop planned for Boulder, Colorado, researchers from the University of Alabama in Huntsville and their collaborators at the National Center for Atmospheric Research will meet to discuss how past patterns of crop production migrations might offer clues on food sustainability.

The workshop will draw together hydrologists, agronomists, economists, climatologists, ecologists, energy experts and water resource planners from UAH, the NCAR, the University of Colorado Boulder, Colorado State University and elsewhere. 

In the last 50 to 80 years, agricultural production of cotton has shifted from the Southeast to the West, grains have shifted to the Upper Midwest, and fruit, nut and vegetable production migrated to the West. By concentrating so much of the nation’s food production in the arid West and grain production in such a small area of the upper Midwest, we have made production vulnerable to regional droughts, according to UAH’s Richard McNider.

This geography of agricultural production has also changed energy consumption through electrical energy used to move surface water in the West and to pump water in the High Plains. It has created the need for transportation energy to move refrigerated food from the West to the East and grains from the Midwest to the Southeast for consumption by poultry and swine. On the other hand, a new migration of agriculture back to the East and Southeast may increase competition for water for cooling in thermoelectric generation and cause hydroelectric losses.

“We believe that these more recent changes in agricultural production in the U.S. have made it more vulnerable,” says McNider. “For example, a two-year Midwest drought could have a devastating effect on our grain production. You never want to have all your eggs in one basket.”

Potential trouble spots include intensively irrigated arid areas in the middle section of the country that draw from aquifers that cannot easily be recharged and some types of agriculture practiced in California, where 50 percent of groundwater has been lost in recent dry conditions that climatologists think may be more the norm than conditions in the recent past, McNider says. 

That suggests that bringing a portion of grain, cotton and vegetable production to the East and Southeast may be more economically feasible and a more sustainable long-term proposition, something that the workshop will explore.

 “The West is going to continue to ask for federal dollars for dams and projects to shore up agriculture there,” McNider says. “But could it be a better investment for the federal government to use that money to build up an infrastructure in the East?”

Happily, Alabama is blessed with liquids.

“With the surface water resources we have in Alabama alone, we feel that we could support more than a million irrigated acres, and right now we irrigate about 100,000,” he says. “Maybe we should actually think about moving some agricultural production to areas where it is more sustainable.”

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