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Drought: Farmers dig deeper, water tables drop, competition heats up

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Currently, the vegetable meccas of California's Central Valley and the grain capitals of the High Plains account for half of all ground water depletion in the United States, according to a 2012 study by the University of Texas. Consequently, within 30 years, "the nation's food supply may be vulnerable to rapid ground water depletion from irrigated agriculture," the study concludes.

"What's going to be left for us to drink?" inquires Johnny Bartlett, selling Hardy Farms boiled peanuts at a shack in Montezuma, Ga.

History has taught farmers some hard lessons. After the Dust Bowl years, hardier hybrids caught on, and seed manufacturers continue to market new, drought-resistant varieties. Tax and other state incentives have encouraged "conservation tilling," which spares topsoil and saves water by using cover crops to protect the earth and ease evaporation.

For centuries, "dry land" farming has been the norm in the usually verdant and rain-soaked South, and remains so in large parts of the drought-stricken Midwest. But in this current manifestation of short- and long-term drought, irrigation has moved from a supplemental boost that evens out annual yields, making the enterprise more predictable, to a necessary crutch.

"If you believe that food and fiber are integral components of our national defense in terms of adequate supply to the people of this country, then I think the investment in irrigation and conservation efforts is a good thing," says Chuck Ellis, Dooly County's longtime agricultural extension agent.

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