October 8, 2014 - By Kate Campbell - Propelled by drought and technological advances, California farms and ranches are rapidly adopting new systems—employing both existing and emerging technology —and agricultural experts say the pace of systems integration is accelerating.
During the past decade, the state's farmers and ranchers have invested more than $3 billion in drip irrigation technology alone, the California Farm Water Coalition estimates. What's different today, experts say, is farmers' ability to instantly gather and compile data from orchards and fields on water, soil and nutrient needs for on-the-spot decision-making.
"Interest in applying technology to farming operations has always been high for growers with high-value crops," said Allan Fulton, University of California Cooperative Extension advisor for Glenn, Shasta and Tehama counties, who works with orchard crop growers on irrigation equipment and strategies.
The drought has heightened that interest, he said, "but where the advances are greatest now is improving the ability to organize data and get it to farm managers promptly."
"With the right system," Fulton said, "farmers can get almost to-the-minute information on every aspect of their crop."
UC Davis researchers currently are building a Web-based platform to bring a variety of field and crop information together in one database. When completed, the platform will enable users to track such factors as evapotranspiration rates, soil moisture content, irrigation schedules, fertigation programs, nutrient application and water quality.
"We're looking at technology that helps farmers understand their soil types within specific fields or blocks," Fulton said. "There's spatial variability in the soil and, in the past, we've been irrigating based on best averages for overall coverage. We now have the ability to quickly gather enough data to be more accurate about how water is applied."
As new, integrated database systems are being created, new data-gathering equipment also is advancing for field use to further aid on-farm decisions. For example, the California Department of Food and Agriculture announced last week a $286,000 grant to UC Davis for work on a continuous leaf moisture monitoring system. Using thermal infrared sensors along with environmental sensors that measure ambient temperature and relative humidity, wind speed and incident radiation, the system's goal is to detect crop water status to support irrigation management.
Tied to the ability to make better, faster decisions to achieve optimum crop production is the increased ability to evaluate environmental data to protect soil, water and habitat.
Jeff Mitchell, a UCCE plant scientist, is conducting trials at the university research station at Five Points in the San Joaquin Valley. He's evaluating overhead, or center pivot, irrigation technology, especially in a system that includes conservation tillage.
Irrigation manufacturers have donated equipment to support the trials, and a number of valley farmers have installed overhead irrigation systems to test their ability to lower water use while maintaining yields.
Mitchell heads the California Agriculture Systems Innovation Center, a collaborative work group that includes more than 2,100 farmers, university researchers, the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service, private companies and government agencies. The work group focuses on emerging crop- and soil-management techniques—conservation tillage, high-surface residue preservation, cover crops—to improve irrigation management, increase carbon storage and build soil quality.
"We're developing completely new cropping systems for the valley," Mitchell said, "and these get at the so-called three E's of farming—integration of equipment, economics and ecology."
Farmer Dino Giacomazzi of Hanford, a CASI work group participant, is in the process of establishing a new almond orchard, and is installing a variety of systems and developing methods to gather data in a way that allows him to make good decisions about irrigation and a host of other farming activities.
"Farmers are thinking in terms of systems these days," said Giacomazzi, who often speaks to farm groups about incorporating technology into farming operations. "It's very difficult to put things together piecemeal. Even to get advice about these more advanced systems is difficult."
As a new almond farmer, he said, he can't find just one person who can tell him what to do with his almonds.
"Instead, I've had to consult with six different experts to get the information I need on the whole process," Giacomazzi said, listing tree experts, soil and irrigation specialists, researchers, regulators, equipment manufacturers and technology advisors. "This is where farmers have to become the experts in terms of putting systems together."
He has used sonar imaging in his new orchard to see below ground, in order to better deploy his high-tech irrigation system.
"There is so much going on right now that systems integration is essential," Giacomazzi said, "but it's hard to find workers prepared to help us with this technical work."
Integrating technology more efficiently is what Bob Martin, manager of Rio Farms in the Salinas Valley, said he's trying to do.
"We're using irrigation technology that's been around a while, but now we're using it in different ways—with climate data, soil probes at different levels and ongoing analysis to protect groundwater," he said. "We're developing new formulas to set optimum ranges for irrigation."
Martin said farmers' attention is more focused underground these days, with soil moisture sensors and subsurface irrigation, as well as new regulatory requirements for an increased variety of reports.
"Now, we move data from the field to cellphone sites or satellites, then to a solar-powered bay station before it's downloaded to a computer or smartphone for analysis and decisions," he said, adding that technology is expensive and leasing off-the-shelf, integrated systems currently is not an option.
To stretch his farm's technology investment dollars, Martin said soil moisture sensors have been set in three different soil types on the farm—sandy, loamy and heavy. Remotely transmitted data is analyzed and irrigation decisions for fields with similar soil types are made based on extrapolation and field knowledge.
Salinas Valley farmers also are working with high tech experts in Silicon Valley and with NASA scientists in Mountain View. Growers in Monterey County have created an innovation incubator for startup companies focused on technology that can be used in agriculture.
Much of what is being worked on now is conceptual, Martin said, "but what's on the ground now is what we're concerned about. We need to use every unit of water we get efficiently."
"We need information we can act on," he said.
(Kate Campbell is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Farmers are making changes in irrigation equipment, data collection and computer systems used for analyzing information generated on the farm. University of California Cooperative Extension farm advisors say other drought-related irrigation trends in the Central Valley include:
- Rapid irrigation system conversions to pressurized, above- and below-ground drip systems.
- Increased field instrumentation to measure soil moisture.
- Added use of water meters at individual field turnouts and of remote flow-sensor reporting.
- More frequent irrigation system evaluations to ensure efficiency and uniformity.
- Increased use of irrigation management consulting services.
Reprinted with permission: California Farm Bureau Federation