Florida Farmers Using High Tech for Underground Lowdown

New technology can be intimidating. The phrase, “I’ll believe it when I see it” often accompanies the apprehension around modern tech adoption. A group of growers in Northeast Florida have had a chance to test out soil moisture sensors — for free — on their operations and are seeing the fruits of what this kind of precision ag technology can afford.

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To encourage the use of new ag-tech tools, UF/IFAS Extension Northeast District – which includes 17 counties – launched a program in 2017 with funding help from the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Sciences, installing soil moisture sensors free of charge to allow growers to view and understand the data provided before they commit to the investment.

“This program has been very successful in getting soil moisture sensors in the hands of agents and farmers,” said Charles Barrett, a UF/IFAS Extension Northeast District Regional Specialized Agent for water resources, who introduced and continues to direct the program.

Barrett noted the distribution of the 20-plus sensors to farmers is overseen by approximately 15 Extension agents throughout his district, but he has hopes to expand within his region and even statewide. He said the additional funding he is currently seeking would support additional sensors and agents to come on board across the state.

“Soil moisture sensors allow farmers to manage the water needs of the crop in the most efficient way, enabling them to avoid overirrigation and loss of plant nutrients to leaching,” stated Tatiana Sanchez, a UF/IFAS Extension Alachua County Commercial Horticulture Agent, who oversees part of a regional program that lends the sensors to farmers.

The researchers explain the probes typically have five sensors that can be set at adjustable depths from 4 to 36 inches to measure the amount of moisture in the soil. The probe also has a battery, a main board, an antenna, and a cell phone-like device that transmits the data, which is then graphed and can be reviewed by the user on a mobile device.

“The sensors also provide volumetric ion content, which is an indication of salt levels at multiple depths,” Sanchez said. “Indirectly, this gives growers an idea of where the fertilizer is in the soil profile and if those nutrients have leached beyond the root zone due to rainfall or excessive irrigation.”

According to Sanchez, since UF/IFAS Extension Alachua County began offering the program last year, six farms have participated. Of the four farms that have completed the trial period, she noted, three have applied to cost-share programs with their water management district to access the technology. This is in line with Barrett’s districtwide estimate that 80% of participating farms have gone on to adopt the technology.