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Water Conservation is Getting Smart!

Each year as our nation celebrates its independence, many Americans fire up the grill, spend time with family and friends, and end the day by watching or shooting off fireworks. Some lucky ones add a splash in the pool, a run through the yard sprinkler or wade in a nearby creek or pond. That sudden burst of wet coolness helps to make the “dog days of summer” a little more enjoyable.Aerial Picture of Variable Rate Irrigation pivot in action

If you are farmer in Georgia and much of the South, you know the value of that water as more of a necessity than a luxury. By now, because of the lack of consistent rain, chances are good that you’ve been irrigating your crops just to keep them going. If you don’t farm but have an irrigation system for your yard and garden, then you know what your food producing siblings are going through. If you are neither, but enjoyed your 4th of July cook out, then keep reading as you might have a new appreciation for what America’s farmers, who make up less than two percent of our population, do every day to feed all of us and much of the world.

It’s All About Timing

While many farmers in the Central and Midwest part of our country have struggled this spring with too much rain and delayed crop plantings, our southern crops like corn, peanuts and cotton, among many others, are in full swing. Timely rain is important to growing any plants regardless if it’s an agricultural crop or a residential lawn. Being prepared to weather the storm, or more accurately - lack thereof, and being able to provide the right amount of water, in the right place, at the right time is critical to the survival of our American farmers today.

Technology Is Leading the Way

As simple as it may sound to water a plant and watch it grow, the need to produce more for a growing global population with the same amount of land and water that we’ve always had, defies logic for many of us and keeps farmers up many nights out of the year.

A Georgia peanut farmer using his smartphone to monitor his crop's water needs.Today, through public and private collaborative efforts, there are more conservation tools available now than ever and great strides are being made to meet this challenge. Row crop farmers like Adam McLendon, who operates McLendon Acres with his father Marty, in southwest Georgia’s Calhoun County, are showing that by working smart, not just hard, they are able to help meet the world’s growing demands in a sustainable way.

“I am a family farmer, an outdoorsman and an environmentalist. I want to protect our resources for future generations,” says McLendon. “By using smart irrigation technology, I know that I am taking a big step to conserve and protect our natural resources. It helps me do this while still producing a quality crop as efficiently as possible.”Soil moisture sensor solfware on phone

During irrigation season, McLendon begins each morning on his mobile device. Using advanced technology installed throughout his family’s farm, he’s able to see what irrigation pivots are running, and which ones aren’t, including those that are supposed to be. Soil moisture sensors located in the crop fields communicate wirelessly to computers on the farm equipped with special software. That software knows the age and precise needs of the crop being grown and can control when the irrigation systems turn on and off, based on the prescribed amount of water needed by the plant’s life stage and growing conditions.

And for those pivots that should be running but aren’t, the technology in the palm of his hands helps him to prioritize repairs and other tasks of the day, which saves him a tremendous amount of time and energy.

Making Every Drop (and Dollar) CountVariable Rate Irrigation pivot

Knowing the crop is thirsty is one thing, but another valuable benefit of the conservation technology being used by farmers is that more of the water being applied is getting to where it is needed most.

To do this, center pivot irrigation systems are being retrofitted with lower pressure drop nozzles that take the water closer to the ground before being released. This approach is improving on previous generations of equipment that used high impact sprinklers that would tower ten feet or more over the ground and were more susceptible to wind drift, as well as over or under application of the water.

Taking this smart irrigation approach even further is that when enabled with variable rate irrigation technology, certain portions of the pivot systems can turn themselves off and on to only apply water to the areas of the field that need it. This is especially effective, and cost saving, when these systems are built to cross over creeks, ponds or other wet areas that don’t need the water.

 “Farmers in general are some of the most conservation minded individuals out there and understand better than anyone how important these resources are, and how conserving them can allow us to produce our crops for generations,” McLendon stated.

When you stop to consider the cost per gallon of diesel fuel or kilowatt of electricity that it costs to power these irrigation systems, you can better understand how McLendon and farmers like him see water savings as both environmental and economic stewardship.

MCCorkie nursery with pivots in background and water pondNon-Traditional Agricultural Uses

For a third-generation ornamental plant farmer who supplies over four million plants each year to the landscape industry in Georgia and the Carolinas, Skeeter McCorkle says that “water is central to our operation.”

McCorkle is speaking both literally and figuratively on behalf of his family’s McCorkle Nurseries, Inc., which is located just outside of Augusta and has been conserving water since the company’s birth in 1942. The farm is set up to recapture and reuse most of its irrigation water through a closed loop system that gravity feeds rain and unused irrigation water to ponds. According to McCorkle, “the recaptured water is then pumped back up to the plants when needed and used over and over.”

While the McCorkles will celebrate 78 years of business this September, they are continuing to adapt and innovate their water conservation efforts by retrofitting their greenhouse irrigation systems with more efficient water emitters. These new systems, like their row cropping siblings use lower pressure heads that bring the water closer to the plant, versus using high impact sprinkler heads that are like common yard sprinklers.

Additionally, as part of a United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) funded specialty crop research initiative grant administered by the National Institute for Food and Agriculture, they are assessing how the use of soil moisture sensors and computer-controlled irrigation scheduling is feasible to their nursery setting.

Early results are impressive and convincing as McCorkle says “the water savings for us was significant. It (the technology) reduced water usage by more than half for certain crops and we are adapting that technology to other parts of our operation.”Soil moisture sensor in Ruby Davis' small field

Similar results can be found on Ruby Davis’ Calhoun County vegetable farm. She too has used soil moisture sensor technologies to know when to turn on and off her irrigation system, thus improving her yields while keeping costs at a minimum. This is especially beneficial for small acreage producers who don’t have vast amounts of acreage to spread costs over and need to get as much yield as they can out of each square foot of production.

Micro-irrigation systems that deliver water the plant’s needs directly on top of the root zones through a drip tape are another effective tool to help non-traditional farmers be good stewards and irrigate smarter.

How Can You Get Smart?

For tips about how you can be a smart irrigator and other information, please visit the Smart Irrigation Georgia website.

There you can view Governor Brian Kemp’s special Smart Irrigation Month kick off message, as well as connect with various resources that are designed to help you understand how water conservation is important to you and those who make their living with it.

Soil moisture sensor in a soybeans fieldHow Can USDA Help You?

If you are a farmer, regardless if you measure your farm by the thousands of acres or thousands of square feet, and want to learn about what USDA resources are available, please visit USDA's new website designed for farmers, by farmers at Farmers.gov.

There you can learn about how to get started in farming, learn what programs can help you grow your operation, where to go to get assistance, as well as connect with other farmers whose stories can inspire or explain in their own words about how USDA helped them.

 

 

Photographs provided by Casey Cox, Matt Hanner and McCorkle Nurseries, Inc..