Column

COLUMN: Technology and water use efficiency for agriculture

Shawn Novack writes that over the last two decades county farmers have been using new technologies and methodologies for efficient water use.
Wind fighter spray nozzle. Photo courtesy of Shawn Novack.

This Column was contributed by Shawn Novack, water conservation program manager with the Water Resources Association San Benito County. The opinions expressed do not necessarily represent BenitoLink or other affiliated contributors. BenitoLink invites all community members to share their ideas and opinions. By registering as a BenitoLink user in the top right corner of our home page and agreeing to follow our Terms of Use, you can write counter opinions or share your insights on current issues.

 

A major concern facing the future of agricultural production is the availability of water. We are seeing the impacts of climate change with more extreme climate events including droughts and floods and shifts in plant growing zones. Locally, we have been in the grips of a three-year drought. Our allocations from the Central Valley Project is zero for both agriculture and the local municipalities this year.  This means we have turned to our groundwater supply, which is a finite resource.

Because of these abnormally dry conditions, the local water agencies enacted Stage II of the Water Shortage Contingency Plan in May. These are mandatory water conservation measures. Most restrictions are for outside water use. To view the measures, go to: www.wrwabsc.org

Agriculture is also trying to adapt to these challenges by using innovative technology and methodologies. These two fields are called precision agriculture and precision agronomics. Over the last two decades San Benito County growers have been using new technologies and methodologies to be more efficient with water use, increase yields and leave less of an impact on the fields of local farms.

Precision agriculture is the use of new technologies to increase crop yields and profits while lowering the levels of traditional things needed to grow crops (water, fertilizer, herbicides and insecticides). Farmers applying precision agriculture are using less to grow more.  The main component of this approach is the use of information technology and a wide range of items such as Global Positioning System (GPS) guidance, sensors, robotics, drones, satellites, autonomous vehicles, variable rate technology, GPS-based soil sampling, automated hardware, telematics and software.

Precision agriculture began with the introduction of GPS guidance for tractors in the 1990s, and the adoption of this technology is now so widespread globally that it’s probably the most used example of precision agriculture today.

GPS devices on tractors allow farmers to plant crops in more efficient patterns, saving time and fuel. Fields can be leveled by lasers, which means water can be applied more efficiently and with less farm water running off into local streams and rivers. The result can be a big benefit for farmers and holds great potential for making agriculture more sustainable and increasing food availability.

Precision agronomics is another important term related to agriculture. It is the combining of methodology with technology that is making a change in farming. Agronomy is a science and a practice that looks at agriculture from an integrated, holistic perspective. In agronomy, it’s important to understand the properties of the soil and how the soil interacts with the growing crop; what nutrients the crop needs and when and how to apply these nutrients; the ways that crops grow and develop; how climate and other environmental factors affect the crop at all stages; and how best to control weeds, insects, fungi, and other crop pests.

Another huge consideration in agronomy is how to grow crops effectively and profitably while conserving natural resources and protecting the environment.

Local use of precision agriculture and agronomics include GPS guided tractors and equipment, moisture sensors and laser-leveled fields. There area also new products that build on previous designs to be more water efficient.

You may have noticed yellow pipes in agricultural fields around the county. Joe Tonascia, a local grower and a Director on the San Benito County Water District board; implemented the use of these irrigation pipes on his farm. The yellow PVC pipes are manufactured to be high-impact, corrosion-resistant above-ground portable irrigation piping systems, the laterals and couplings are impervious to sunlight, electrolysis, chemicals and fertilizers. The design allows for easy use in agricultural irrigation. The couplings that hook the pipes together make a solid seal with little to no leaks. These pipes when compared to the traditional aluminum pipes are much more water efficient. The yellow pipes have instant pressurization at startup, which takes minutes (vs. hours for aluminum systems). They also have a distribution uniformity of 84% vs. about 70% for comparable aluminum systems as reported by the National Resource Conservation Service, a division of the U.S. Department Agriculture.

Sprinkler heads called “wind fighter” spray nozzles are also being used. These sprinkler heads protect the stream of water leaving the sprinkler nozzle from the wind. This allows water to stay on target rather than blowing on roads or unplanted areas.

The sprinklers themselves rotate and consistently deliver higher uniformity than traditional sprinklers. The sprinklers form a tight wind-penetrating stream that is systematically broken up by a diffuser, filling in the water pattern. The sweeping action of the nozzles gently distributes water droplets to the ground and prevents soil compaction.

Another local grower, Stan Pura of Mission Ranches, has also enacted new technologies and methodologies on his farmland. On a trip to one of his agricultural fields he explained some of the farming methods he’s incorporated compared to past practices.

He explained how larger planting beds are more desirable to help retain soil moisture and how he utilizes minimum tillage. In the past, fields would be disked after harvest at a much deeper level. Farming with minimum tillage can improve soil structure, reduce weeds, enable earlier planting dates and increase yields.

He also went on to explain the importance of seeds. Quality seeds increase yields, reduce the need for fertilizer and use less water.

Precision agriculture technologies continue to develop, and more and more farms are adopting available technology and practices. Like any other industry, advocates are needed to drive greater adoption and hence greater efficiency.

As Mike Wade, Executive Director of the California Farm Water Coalition stated in recent interview:

“California farms produce over half of the country’s fruits, nuts, and vegetables. California foods aren’t just in the produce aisle, but also in the ready-made foods and ingredients we eat every single day. That can’t happen without water and we cannot simply move California production to other states. A safe, affordable, domestic food supply is a national security issue, just like energy. The government must make it a priority.”

Shawn Novack

Shawn Novack is the Director of the Water Resources Association of San Benito County. The Association represents the City of Hollister, the City of San Juan Bautista, the Sunnyslope County Water District and the San Benito County Water District for all their water conservation and water resource protection programs. Shawn has been in the field of water conservation for 20 years. He has a certification as a Water Conservation Practioner from the American Water Works Association California/Nevada Chapter. He also is a Certified Landscape Irrigation Auditor through the Irrigation Association in Virginia. Before getting into the water industry, Shawn worked as a technical writer for the Naval Research Center in Monterey.