Water is a precious resource to all farmers and ranchers, and infrastructure, technology, and conservation are especially critical in regions receiving less rainfall than the rest of the country. Water access in the drought-impacted regions has far-reaching effects for American agriculture and consumers near and far. Nearly 70% of the U.S.—from the West to the Central Plains—are now facing abnormally dry conditions, or worse. In terms of our nation’s food supply, farmers and ranchers across areas facing persistent, severe drought produce more than 80% of fruits, nuts and vegetables, more than 80% of wheat, more than 50% of dairy, and more than 70% of beef for our nation.
Farmers are continuously improving their water conservation as they grow the food, fuel and fiber we all depend on, thanks to advances in technology. While U.S. agricultural production has increased to meet the demands of a growing population, the amount of water used for agriculture has remained steady as more farmers adopt precision technology and more advanced irrigation systems. For example, through drip irrigation, farmers reduce water use up to 40%, getting moisture right to each plant. Advances are also being made in humidity-sensing technology that helps farmers determine how much water is needed for a crop, down to the drop.
Federal and state investments in infrastructure have been critical to the development of the American West. Dams, reservoirs and canals maximize limited precipitation throughout the often-arid West, deliver water to consumers and businesses, and play a central role in powering not only agriculture but also energy grids. Water infrastructure across the West is long overdue for an upgrade, however, with many federal canals, dams and reservoirs 50 to 100 years old.
Innovation is also bringing solutions to the table with advanced practices to maximize our limited water resources. Technology like desalination, reuse and recycling can repurpose water otherwise not fit for consumption or use. Technology is bringing water back into the cycle more quickly and helping farmers and other industries recharge this precious resource.
Water on the farm and ranch sustains life there and beyond, as farmers grow the food, fiber and fuel that we all depend on. Agricultural water use is also critical to supporting local wildlife and replenishing soil moisture and groundwater. Irrigation plays an important role in not only conserving but also strategically using water on farmland. Flood irrigation, for crops such as rice, can provide habitat for migratory birds, and irrigation furrows in farm fields also help recharge depleted groundwater. Ranch and farm ponds for livestock serve a dual purpose as well with birds and other wildlife taking advantage of these watering holes.
AFBF economists and state Farm Bureau staff have been closely tracking the intensifying drought conditions across the West, Southwest, and Northern Plains regions of the U.S. In July 2022, AFBF designed and distributed a survey to Farm Bureau members in the West to assess the drought’s impact on farm and ranch businesses. The Market Intel analysis and graphics below explore the results of that survey and provide highlights of drought impact. AFBF economists continuously monitor agricultural conditions in the region and spotlight state specific hardships faced by our farm and ranch families through an ongoing Market Intel series.