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Robert McLendon

By Amanda Huber

After another year of drought, Robert McLendon is glad he invested in insurance. His insurance comes in the form of irrigation. As McLendon sees it, irrigation ensures that, even when prices are low, he still has something to sell.

"It does not match my mentality to plant a crop and risk not having enough water to make anything on it," says the Leary, Ga., grower who is the current president of the National Cotton Council.

"I began farming 26 years ago. The farm had some irrigation, but I made an effort to put in more systems. About 10 years ago, we became a 100 percent irrigated farm. Now, it is considered standard equipment. With it, we average two bales of cotton per acre and 4,000 to 5,000 pounds of peanuts per acre."

It takes 36 center-pivot irrigation systems, 24 of which are Valley center pivots, to cover McLendon Farms? 900 acres of peanuts and 2,100 acres of cotton near Leary, Damascus and Arlington, Ga. He uses a three-year rotation, with two years of cotton followed by one year of peanuts. He would like to add corn to the rotation, but cannot justify it with the current prices.

Because it was so dry in the spring, McLendon, like many other growers, had to irrigate earlier than usual.

"If there?s adequate soil moisture in the spring, we don?t have to irrigate peanuts to get them up," he says. "This year was dry enough that we had to water them to get them to come up."

Perhaps the need for insurance comes from McLendon?s background before farming. After graduating from the University of Georgia in 1963, he worked for Great Southern Paper Company, Mutual of New York and was executive vice president for banks in Georgia and Alabama.

Adding Efficiency
McLendon?s irrigation plan has evolved over the years to increase the efficiency of his water use.

He began irrigating with high pressure nozzles, but converted to medium and low pressure nozzles to conserve water. He also adds efficiency by using drop nozzles.

"The first few years, we put in systems that were large," McLendon explains. "Where I live, our yields vary a lot without irrigation; and the margin of profit is so little. We can?t afford to miss a crop. For this reason, I?ve gone back and put in systems where I wouldn?t have 10 years ago."

Like other farms, his fields vary in size from 20 acres to 300 acres. He depends on recommendations from University of Georgia Extension engineers and has expanded his irrigation use to increase the consistency of yields.

Monitoring Water Use
Aware of potential water shortages in southwest Georgia, McLendon actively monitors water consumption on the farm. For two years he has used the computer model Irrigator, formerly known as EXNUT, developed by the USDA-ARS lab in Dawson, Ga., to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of his irrigation systems.

As per the model instructions, McLendon checks rain gauges and records soil temperatures in his fields twice a week. He says it is somewhat time consuming and expensive, but admits it is much cheaper than losing peanuts.

"The computer model recommends when we need to irrigate peanuts based on minimum and maximum soil temperatures and the age of the peanuts," he explains.

Prior to using the computer model, McLendon relied solely on how the plant looked. He learned that this approach actually led to over-watering, which increased occurrence of diseases in his peanuts.

McLendon plans to improve his ability to monitor future water use.

"I?m not doing as much as I?d like," he says. "Right now we try to accurately track the hours the pivots run during the day. My goal is to eventually install flow meters on all of my systems to better track the amount of water pumped each minute."

Georgia requires growers have permits to run each of their pivots. The permit is based on the gallons pumped per minute.

Cooperating to Learn More
Because of the dry conditions and having only a small reservoir to draw from, McLendon ran out of water this season on a farm near Arlington, Ga. Unfortunately, this is not an uncommon problem. As a result, he is participating in a program with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources to monitor one of his wells and the activity of the aquifer from which the well draws water.

Rather than taking an antagonistic attitude toward water use and the state government, McLendon has chosen to cooperate and learn more about water.

"If you don?t know what?s going on under the ground, there?s no way to effectively manage your resource," he says.

McLendon may be thinking about water use on this year?s peanut and cotton crop, but he is also thinking ahead.

"Fifty years from now, I want a water resource that will benefit everyone, including my grandchildren and great-grandchildren." PG

Angela Duff of CMF&Z is a communications consultant for Valmont Irrigation and contributed to this article.