Certifiably professional

Build your expertise by pursuing education and hiring certified professionals.
BY CHARLES ABEE, CAIS
People stand around a pump system with the words "certifiably professional" overlaying the image.
Education is a combination of acquiring knowledge and experience. While school is a great place to gather those, there are many other opportunities for picking up industry education. (Photo: Charles Abee)

On the surface level, irrigation sounds like an easy concept. We really only have to answer two basic questions, “When do I irrigate?” and “How long do I irrigate for?”

As simple as these questions sound there is so much information that goes into accurately making these decisions, such as soil type, soil quality, evapotranspiration, crop coefficient, water quality, field practices, distribution uniformity, irrigation efficiency, phenology stage and electrical time of use. Add in a restricted water supply and you have a complex chess game that could be played over hundreds to thousands of acres. I want to address how education and certification are crucial for ag irrigation specialists in making these challenging decisions.

Education is a combination of acquiring knowledge and experience. We might think of education in the traditional sense of going to college, but I will be the first to admit there is so much education that happens outside the walls of any college. I personally learned a lot about irrigation system maintenance working for a research farm in the Central Valley of California long before I ever had any formal training in irrigation. School is a great place to start acquiring knowledge and there are a great number of programs across this country that will provide training in irrigation scheduling to system design and maintenance both in the agriculture and landscape worlds.

Unfortunately, your life may not work on a quarter or semester system if you are a working professional. There are many other opportunities both through the Irrigation Association and outside to acquire this knowledge, including short courses at community colleges, cooperative extension, the Irrigation Training and Research Center at Cal Poly or Center for Irrigation Technology at Fresno State, dealer and manufacturer trainings and webinars, just to name a few. The Irrigation Association hosts a great number of IA University classes during the Irrigation Show and Education Week each year along with webinars throughout the year. Each of these opportunities will allow you to pick specific areas you may want to develop. I have had the pleasure of taking classes in irrigation system design, ag water management, pumps, center pivot design and irrigation system wiring. These classes provided me with a broad base of technical knowledge and some hands-on experiences to better understand specific concepts.

Education options

You may be wondering how to get education if you can’t attend a semester-long class. My experience might help provide a few options, as I feel I have become a professional in seeking out irrigation education. Before I taught at College of Sequoias, I was a high school agriculture teacher and FFA advisor. I had enough irrigation knowledge to teach my students at the high school level, but when I moved into college I knew I needed to increase my knowledge to teach the depth of courses that we teach. I started by attending field days offered by our University of California Cooperative Extension and the Center for Irrigation Technology at Fresno State. As summer rolled around I enrolled in short courses offered at the Irrigation Training Research Center at Cal Poly. I have attended many Irrigation Association trainings throughout the years including both webinars and in-person trainings.

Some manufacturers host webinars on a weekly or monthly basis that I listen to religiously along with other podcasts. Our local California Agricultural Irrigation Association also hosts two meetings a year with great presentations on topics affecting Californians. If there is a topic you want more information on, I can guarantee there is an article, webinar, YouTube video, class or book on it.

The importance of education in agriculture irrigation simply comes down to the fact that water is the most important nutrient we apply to our crops. Ag irrigation specialists understand soil and water relationships. They understand how much water different types of soil can hold, which is going to dictate the necessary length of irrigation needed. They understand net crop water requirements using evapotranspiration and crop coefficients. Net water requirement doesn’t consider inefficiencies in the irrigation system. An ag irrigation specialist can adjust the net water requirement to gross water requirement by understanding distribution uniformity, leaching requirement for salts and application efficiency. All of these factors are going to drive the irrigation requirement up.

There are a whole host of information systems available to growers, which can sometimes cause data overload. A certified professional has the knowledge to comb through the information, pick out what is needed and make actionable decisions based on that data. With tightening water supplies, having that education will ensure that each drop of water is going to make an efficient and productive crop.

Make a commitment

As an educator I encourage my students to seek certification. The reason I encourage this is because individuals who get certified are making a commitment to the industry that they have achieved a specific level of knowledge and skills. They will work to maintain and improve that knowledge and skill, and they will conduct themselves with integrity while working in the industry. Certified individuals take great pride in their certification and work consistently to maintain their certification through continuing education units.

One of the messages I give them is to look for certified individuals as they choose others to work with, for multiple reasons. A certified irrigation designer understands how to design an irrigation system with the best components that is going to meet the crop water demand and operate efficiently for many years. When bidding on irrigation systems, they will cost out the operation expenses for the system. These designers are not just looking at the initial upfront cost of the system but projecting out the operating costs based on the energy requirements. Many times, the system may be a little more expensive upfront, but the added expense will pay for itself in several years because it operates more efficiently and applies water more uniformly. They also have the training and skill to provide growers the best system for their crop.

Many growers are hiring consultants to do irrigation scheduling for them. I encourage these growers to use a certified ag irrigation specialist. These individuals have the knowledge and skill to take all parameters into account when scheduling irrigations. They are also equipped with the ability to evaluate the effectiveness of the application of water by determining the application efficiency (total beneficial water/total applied water). This valuable data allows schedulers to refine their applications to better meet crop water requirement. A certified ag irrigation specialist can answer both “When do I irrigate?” and

“How long do I irrigate for?” and they can give you the why behind the answer to both of those questions.
In the current agriculture climate with scarce water supplies and tight margins on many crops, having education and being certified or hiring a certified individual is going to keep growers profitable. Water is a precious resource to life and we owe it to everyone to manage it wisely. If you are thinking about becoming certified, I encourage you to take the plunge, study hard and take the test. We owe it to our growers and producers to be the best water stewards we can.

Charles Abee, CAIS, is an agriculture technology and irrigation professor at the College of the Sequoias, Visalia, California, and was a recipient of the Irrigation Association’s 2022 Excellence in Education Award.
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