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The changing face of western irrigated agriculture: structure, water management, and policy implications




Skaggs, Rhonda, author
Samani, Zohrab, author
U.S. Committee on Irrigation and Drainage, publisher

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The structure of U.S. agriculture is dualistic and likely to become more so in the future. A small percentage of farms produce the majority of output, and almost three-fourths of U.S. farms sell less than $50,000 worth of goods annually. Farms in the lower sales categories tend to have chronic negative net farm incomes, and many have no intention of earning a living from agriculture. Much of this residential, lifestyle, or retirement agriculture occurs on the urban fringe and in rural areas just beyond the urban fringe. In the arid western U.S., much of it is located in irrigated river valleys, which are also centers of population and economic activity. New Mexico's Elephant Butte Irrigation District (EBID) is located in one of the fastest growing counties in the United States. The region is experiencing water rights adjudication, rapid population growth, economic diversification, and increased competition for water resources. Recent research in the District found large differences in irrigation practices, efficiencies, and on-farm infrastructure relative to farm size. The small, residential, lifestyle, or retirement farms are notably different from the larger, commercially oriented farms. Many small producers view irrigation as a recreational, social, or lifestyle activity, rather than an income generating pursuit. The small farms have limited on-farm infrastructure, low irrigation efficiencies, and little interest in making irrigation improvements. Large, commercially oriented farms have high levels of on-farm irrigation efficiency due to deficit irrigation practices and investments in infrastructure. The Elephant Butte research led to questions about changes in agricultural structure, water management, and water resource policy implications in other western U.S. irrigated districts. We hypothesized that the trends in agricultural structure found in the EBID would appear in other irrigated areas in the West. Analysis of limited U.S. Census of Agriculture data for a sample of western counties supports this hypothesis for some regions. The water policy implications of the findings are discussed.


Presented during the Third international conference on irrigation and drainage held March 30 - April 2, 2005 in San Diego, California. The theme of the conference was "Water district management and governance."

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