Irrigation project holds promise for Plains farmers

Montana/North Dakota State Roundup

Published July 1, 1998  | July 1998 issue

Farmers in the arid Plains of eastern Montana and western North Dakota have long relied on Mother Nature to nourish crops, but an ambitious irrigation project may provide more predictable and more profitable results.

Sixteen irrigation districts have been formed that encompass up to 500,000 acres in a 150-mile circle around Williston, N.D., including eastern Montana. Within that area, about 180,000 acres are already flood or center-pivot irrigated, but according to Tom Rolfstad, director of the Williston Economic Development Partnership, another 260,000 acres could be added. To make the irrigation investment pay for itself, farmers need to grow high-value crops, such as potatoes or sugar beets.

One part of the plan, a $9.3 million pilot project that moves water from the Missouri River to Williams County, covers about 8,000 acres in the Neeson Valley 25 miles east of Williston. In that area several farmers have planted test plots of potatoes for the second year in a row to determine whether this would be a viable crop for newly irrigated land. Last year, 100 acres of potatoes were successfully grown and sold to a processor, and if this year's crop also flourishes, full production could begin in 1999. The ultimate goal is to grow enough potatoes to lure a processing operation to the region. Currently, potato-processing plants operate in Grand Forks and Jamestown in the eastern part of the state, making transportation a cost issue.

Rolfstad says the value in irrigating more farmland is clear: Irrigated land generates 13 times the income as dry-land farming. Although growers initially must invest about $1,000 per acre for center-pivot irrigation, often more than the value of the land, he notes that it is more economical than flood irrigation because about one-third as much water is used, there is less run-off and higher efficiency overall.

One benefit of the drier climate, 12 inches to 13 inches of rain per year, is that crops are less prone to disease, Rolfstad says. By adding controlled irrigation to these conditions, the potential for growing other crops develops. In fact, the region has drawn the interest of some crop producers in eastern North Dakota who are looking at moving crops such as malting barley to the irrigated area, Rolfstad says.

He adds that the entire Missouri River system has a lot of potential for seasonal use of irrigation.

Kathy Cobb