New technology is making it possible for farmers to maximize the benefits of organic farming methods by increasing the efficient utilization of water and fertilizers while reducing labor and critical water waste. Such changes make farming operations more sustainable and help protect the environment. Being able to accurately determine when and how much water crops need and to supply that water with minimal waste means better crop production, less soil erosion and better availability of water for other uses.
Technology That Provides Cost-Effective Irrigation Water Usage
Extensive research on Subsurface Drip Irrigation (SDI) has been conducted, including a 15-year fascinating study on water irrigation in California’s heartland (note: a Word Doc safe-download technical summary can be found in the bottom link) regarding the installation and use of drip irrigation systems, both on the surface and under the ground. Buried lines are the most efficient if they are placed well, and lines that stay clog-free are now available. Organic fertilizers made from compost can be mixed with the water and sent to the soil near crop roots for plant nourishment. With this system, called “fertigation,” there is less chance of leaf burn. One company, Netafim, now offers a variety of ways to install and automate complete subsurface drip irrigation systems that take advantage of all the benefits revealed by research.
Solar pump irrigation systems offer farmers a unique, cost-effective way to push water where they want it to go. Computerized valves control the flow and timing of water used for irrigation. In Oregon, the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board as well as the National Resource Conservation Services Organic Environmental Quality Incentives Program, or “EQIP,” provide funding assistance to organic farmers who want to transition to such systems. One farmer, Michael Paine, is quite pleased with his system. His system cuts down critical water waste, plus saves fuel and time. In addition, weed management is easier and crop production has noticeably increased. In Africa, solar-powered drip irrigation has been found to be effective in reducing manual labor and increasing food security.
Technology to Reduce Critical Water Waste
The importance of overcoming critical water waste cannot be understated. Inefficient water diversion may result from poor design or lack of monitoring. Irrigation water that evaporates before it reaches crop roots or that cannot penetrate the soil results in critical water waste. Over-application of water causes plant damage. It also may create soil erosion and carry pollutants to nearby water sources.
New technologies that analyze weather, soil and crop conditions as well as products that automate irrigation timing and water flow help farmers greatly reduce critical water waste and prevent inefficient water diversion. Here are a few examples:
- Systems that measure water volume at different points as it travels from the point of diversion to the location where it will water crops or use “smart” meters to detect water pump leaks. These systems allow the water user to take action before a large volume of water is lost.
- The Iro Wi-Fi sprinkler controller, manufactured by Rachio. Originally developed for lawn and garden applications, this controller automatically adjusts to the weather and the season. It allows the user to set it once and not worry about it. Should a farmer want further control, he or she can change the settings from anywhere in the world through use of a smart device or laptop computer. The RainBird ClimateMinder controller, made for larger operations, offers similar features.
- The AggieAir, developed by the Utah Water Research Laboratory. This unmanned autonomous system, more commonly called a “drone,” is capable of taking high-resolution images that reveal soil moisture and crop conditions. A 2014 study mentioned that devices capable of providing thermal imagery enhance the ability to accurately evaluate soil moisture through digital imagery provided by drones.
- Automated systems that use probes inserted into the soil to measure moisture content and soil temperatures. The sensors transmit information over a wireless network to a centralized microcontroller. With some systems, the farmer receives information on his or her cell phone or other device and has the ability to signal irrigation valves to open or close, directly addressing our critical water waste problem.