Water: High technology, storage will both help, farmers say


Issue Date: March 5, 2014
By Kate Campbell

Irrigation supply stores throughout California report brisk sales, and irrigation experts say extreme drought has prompted a closer look at emerging technology to help stretch dwindling water supplies.

California farmers invested more than $3 billion in improved irrigation technology between 2003 and 2013, according to Danny Merkley, California Farm Bureau Federation water resources director.

"Already, farmers have upgraded irrigation systems on more than 2.6 million acres statewide," Merkley said.

Many farmers and ranchers see technology as a way to accelerate water supply management capability and better integrate a variety of operations, while noting that a combination of efficiency improvements and investment in new water storage and recycling will be needed to assure future supplies.

"I've worked in two-dozen countries consulting on various aspects of applied irrigation technology, and find California farmers are doing an outstanding job of adopting technology for better water management," said Charles Burt, chairman of the Irrigation Training and Research Center at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo.

California farms today rely on integrated computer systems and advanced field technologies, Burt said, adding that use of high-tech tools "is skyrocketing."

"But when you get down to water management, monitors and sensors and satellites can only do so much, because many on-farm decisions require sophisticated judgment that only experienced farmers can make," he said.

One farmer who makes extensive use of irrigation technology, Zach Sheely of Kings County, said technology has become both more advanced and easier to use. In the past, Sheely said, high-tech systems developed for agriculture were so complex that it was hard for farmers to determine if time and money invested in technology were well spent.

"These days, on-farm management technology has improved greatly," he said. "Look around. How many smartphones and iPads do you see in the hands of farmers? These devices are a great way to interact with farm management information, and new software can provide tools that feel familiar. A very important part of technology is that it's easy to use."

With a growing array of remote sensing devices, flow monitors, soil moisture monitors, light and pressure sensors, variable-frequency drive pumps and remote activation equipment, Sheely said it comes down to this: How do we use technology to do a better job of farming?

"I'm encouraged to see the direction California agriculture is going," he said.

Sheely has been working on advanced software systems to help improve the quality of data delivered on the farm and make it more reliable and accurate.

"These days, a lot of information can be captured, but you can spend as much time combing through bad data as you can information that's well structured and suitable for decision making," he said. "This is especially important in California, where there are big demands on a shrinking water supply and farmers are being asked to do more with less."

Satellite imagery, mapping and in-ground sensors arm farmers with a wealth of data that helps them decide when and how much water and nutrients should be applied to a crop to maximize income, said Inge Bisconer, Toro Micro-Irrigation sales manager.

"Advanced irrigation technology enables farmers to spoon-feed their crop," she said. "I'm excited by the opportunity for further adoption of emerging technologies."

There are a large number of progressive farmers exploring and adopting advanced technology, experts say. These farmers are increasingly working with certified crop advisors and agronomic researchers. Some farms have experts on staff; others rely on consultants.

"Putting all the systems together is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle," Bisconer said. "There are a lot of pieces that have to fit to achieve the best efficiencies and highest yields."

Dan Rooney, strategic development manager for Trimble Navigation, said precision agriculture technology represents the company's fastest-growing division. He said the technology allows farmers to customize irrigation to different parts of a single field.

"Putting the right amount of water on at the right time, that is what precision irrigation is about," Rooney said. "What our company does is make maps to tell where water needs to be applied."

The systems have been put into use primarily by larger farms that already employ in-house agronomists, information technology specialists and crop advisers, he said.

In a 2011 report on agricultural water use efficiency, the Center for Irrigation Technology at California State University, Fresno, found that between 1994 and 2008, the amount of farmland irrigated by subsurface irrigation increased 18.6 percent and acreage irrigated by drip irrigation jumped 150 percent, while use of gravity flow and sprinkler irrigation each declined.

The state Department of Water Resources reported that during the 40-year period 1967 to 2007, the amount of water applied to California farmland dropped 14.5 percent. Separate statistics from the state Department of Food and Agriculture show tonnage of crop production rose 59 percent in the same period—for an increase of more than 85 percent in tons of food per acre-foot of water.

But farmers note that efficiency alone won't secure water supplies, and continue to press for enhanced water storage in California.

"We manage farming on about 12,000 acres in the San Joaquin Valley," Sheely said. "This year, we'll fallow about 25 percent of that land to protect investments in permanent crops. We live in the most progressive agricultural region in the world, but you can't grow anything without water."

(Kate Campbell is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at kcampbell@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.