Florida Growers Seize Control Of Water Challenges
The Lower St. Johns River has been in the spotlight in recent years as water quality issues and algal blooms have topped the headlines. As is often the case, agriculture is singled out in the media as a guilty party.
But, growers in the Tri-County Agricultural Area (TCAA) are stepping up to the challenge, partnering with a number of agencies to cost-share projects aimed at addressing water concerns. Bryan Jones has rallied growers in the area to try alternative irrigation and fertilization techniques to reduce nutrient runoff in waterways like the St. Johns.
Jones farms with his father Richard in St. Augustine on their Riverdale Farms. The family grows potatoes, corn, green beans, and sod. He says potato farmers in particular can benefit from new practices, which protect water resources and can result in better yields and quality. And, he is passionate about the cause.
“I believe the Tri-County area can be an example to the state, the region, and the country,” Jones says. “We are still finalizing the data on how much water we are saving with UF/IFAS researchers, but when we do, it is going to be jaw-dropping. I am proud of our work here.”
Jones was recognized as one of Florida Ag Commissioner Adam Putnam’s 2014 Agricultural-Environmental Leadership Award winners for his work with subsurface drip seepage irrigation.
“I am honored by the award, but I also want to be sure that all the great things growers in this area are doing to protect our land and water are applauded,” he says.
Jones got turned on to a potential new irrigation tactic when visiting the Sun Belt Expo several years ago and learning how some row crop growers were using drip irrigation.
“My dad and I were at the show and we learned how some cotton and peanut growers in Georgia were using drip placed below the bed. A light bulb went off that this could possibly be applied to potatoes and other crops in our area,” he says.
The approach has been adapted for potatoes on some of Riverdale Farms’ acres to replace traditional seepage irrigation, which is slow and utilizes large volumes of water. A 7/8, 15-mil. drip tape with emitters spaced 12 inches apart is installed below the soil.
“We are placing the tape 14 inches below the alley, so it won’t get damaged by tillage equipment,” Jones says. “We don’t know how long we are going to get out of the tape, but we are going into our fourth season and it is holding up. We might get 15 years out of the tape. If not, we’ll pull it out and replace it. The tape is the least expensive part of the project.”
Unlike cotton and peanuts where tape goes under every row, Jones is installing two or three lines per 60-foot bed, and the efficiency it brings to watering potatoes is astonishing he says. The tape is placed 26 feet apart and will irrigate four rows to the right and four to the left. On hard irrigating ground, a third line is placed in the center of the bed to allow for more water.
“On some of our conventional ground, it might take a couple of weeks for the water to move down the furrow to the other end of the field,” Jones says. “That’s just getting down to the other end, not seeping out into the middles of the beds.
“With the tape, I can turn on the system at the well, get in my pickup and drive to the other side of the field and water is already seeping out. It is so fast and so effective that we now use moisture sensors in the fields so we don’t overdo it.”
With conventional seepage in an average season, large quantities of water are required to irrigate potatoes — up to 300,000 to 400,000 gallons per acre.
“We are pumping water 24/7 for six to eight weeks,” Jones says. “On good irrigating ground, once I bring the water table up, I can run only eight hours per week using the drip tape. We expect we will achieve 80% water-use efficiency.
“With conventional seepage, the first and sometimes second outside rows of the beds are going to stay wetter and it stresses the plants, so we can see yield loss on those rows. We can eliminate this with the drip. We have the tape spaced out evenly in the bed, so we can bring the water up and down evenly. This creates a uniform environment for the plants to grow.”
Because of the positive benefits resulting from the enhanced drip seepage, Jones says he’d like to install tape on all the farm’s acres over time. “We are adding a little more tape each season, starting with our tougher ground first,” he says. “And, it is opening up land we couldn’t farm before. We had some old ground where a pond had been filled in, and with conventional seepage, it simply would not irrigate. UF/IFAS researchers who looked at the field couldn’t figure out why the water would not percolate through the soil. We put drip tape in that field, and within days, we had standing water. It is amazing.”