Improving Water Management: Can Silicon Valley Help?

I recently attended the Forbes AgTech Summit in Salinas, CA, where roughly 50 start-up companies originating from Silicon Valley and other high-tech regions of the country demonstrated their latest wares for the agriculture industry.

Precision Ag Specialty Crops logoMany of these companies are developing products to address water management. I saw innovative drones that can be programmed to collect thermal images of fields to assess if crops are water-stressed.

Several companies displayed dataloggers that use wireless communication technology to automatically retrieve data from sensors deployed in fields. Some of these wireless communication networks can remotely monitor irrigation system performance and activate valves and pumps. Several companies are developing decision support software to help improve irrigation scheduling.

As someone who researches and teaches water management of vegetables in California, I have a keen interest to discover and learn about new tools that could help growers be more efficient in irrigating vegetables. While many of these products were intriguing, many were not a good fit for the vegetable industry.

For example, some of the new soil moisture sensors are easy to install in vegetable fields and the data can be conveniently viewed on a smartphone using wireless communication technology, but the additional cost of the dataloggers and wireless communications is still too high for most growers to implement in more than a few fields.

Software designed for scheduling irrigation provided generic recommendations that were not useful for the diversity of vegetables grown in California. It seems many high-tech start-up companies have developed well-intentioned products without first understanding the constraints of most vegetable production operations. Also, although these companies hire talented professionals, many of these employees do not understand the realities of managing water on mid- to large-scale vegetable operations.

From Fantasy to Reality

Commercial vegetable production poses many challenges to managing water efficiently. One of the major difficulties is the number of fields that must be concurrently managed. Field sizes tend to be small (less than 20 acres) to stagger plantings so that a steady supply of vegetables can be supplied to buyers. Consequently, medium- and large-scale operations may manage several hundred plantings each season. This means irrigation decisions must be coordinated simultaneously for many fields at various stages of crop development.

In addition to managing multiple plantings, most diversified vegetable companies produce multiple types of vegetables, each with unique water and nutrient requirements. Some vegetables are grown for short crop cycles (30 to 40 days), such as baby lettuce, and some are grown over long cycles, such as Brussels sprouts (160 to 200 days).

Besides irrigating crops, farm managers need to coordinate many other field activities, such as pesticide and fertilizer applications, weeding, tillage, and harvest operations. Another reality of most vegetable operations is that irrigators often have limited education and training, and may not feel competent using complicated software or sensor tools.

While I may sound somewhat skeptical about the potential benefits of current technology for improving water management in vegetable operations, I am a firm believer in the phrase: “One cannot manage what one cannot measure.” If records are not maintained on the volume of water applied to a crop, how can one judge if too much or too little water was applied? If one does not know how much water a crop uses per week, how does one determine how much water to apply? And if the application rate of the irrigation system is not known, how can one estimate how long to irrigate?

Human + Artificial Intelligence

Many vegetable operations rely on the experience of their irrigation foremen and farm managers to determine when and how much water to apply to their crops. From experience, they know how long to irrigate to ensure that water demands are met at different times of the year, and when they can lengthen the interval between irrigations without harming crop yield. They understand the importance of pre-irrigating the right amount for optimizing soil tilth before preparing seed beds. They realize the need to apply sprinkler water as uniformly as possible to prevent patterns when germinating leafy green crops.

But as we enter an era in the West of scarcer water supplies, changing weather patterns, and more regulations associated with water quality and quantity, experience may not be sufficient. Stretching limited water supplies while maximizing yield and quality are becoming increasingly important to remain a competitive player in the vegetable industry.

Over-applying water during one or two irrigations can leach a significant amount of nitrate below crop roots. Many buyers are interested in metrics that demonstrate crops are grown sustainably. These data-driven needs will likely require more on-farm technology.

How to Connect the Dots

Silicon Valley may have the know-how to develop high-tech tools that can help achieve better water management, but these companies will need partnerships with the agriculture industry for their investments to pay off.

Growers may need to meet with start-up entrepreneurs and identify the most critical opportunities where technology could be beneficial. In California, for example, technology to address the shortage and high cost of labor associated with irrigation would probably be of great interest to the vegetable industry. Growers also need to hire and develop employees that can embrace technological solutions.

When I visit farms, I frequently come across sophisticated soil moisture sensors or weather stations in equipment yards that are not being used by the field staff.

Another important link to bringing technological change to irrigation is through partnerships with agricultural researchers. Many irrigation engineers and agricultural scientists have knowledge that could be beneficial to helping develop and adapt new irrigation technology for vegetable systems. Some of my colleagues have expertise on the nutrient and water needs of vegetables; others conduct remote sensing research on vegetable crops, and a few have developed technology that can automate the operation and scheduling of irrigation systems.

This knowledge and experience can be invaluable to companies that lack expertise in vegetable production and irrigation. Many researchers and Extension personnel also are interested to assist growers in adapting new technology for their farming operations.

With the many recent developments in sensor technology, wireless communications, and remote sensing imaging, there is much potential to develop economical solutions for improving irrigation management. A key to successfully bringing new technology to the farm will be partnerships developed among vegetable producers, technology companies, and the research community.

Michael Cahn is the Irrigation and Water Resources Advisor at the University of California, Cooperative Extension, Monterey.

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