Exploring precision agriculture and smart irrigation for sustainable farming

Precision irrigation as a means of precision agriculture has the potential to save growers time, money and energy.
BY LUKE REYNOLDS
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The Irrigation Association, Fairfax, Virginia, is highlighting the value of smart irrigation through Smart Irrigation Month this July. The initiative was created to promote the social, economic and environmental benefits of efficient irrigation technologies, products and services in landscape, turf and agricultural irrigation. This year’s theme, “What’s the value of smart irrigation?” allows the IA to tell the irrigation industry’s story about how smart irrigation products, technologies and practices are having a positive and beneficial impact on our lives and communities. Smart Irrigation Month is sponsored by HydroPoint.

With advancing technology and increasing environmental challenges at the forefront of growers’ minds, the practice of precision agriculture, including precision irrigation, could provide a transformative and fruitful path to fewer inputs with increased yield.

How does smart irrigation support sustainable farming?

This approach, powered by data-driven decisions and seamless integration, could hold cost and time savings but also the potential to unlock increased levels of productivity and sustainability, says Charles Hillyer, PhD, interim associate vice president at the California Water Institute located at California State University, Fresno.

“Savings is sort of the proximal motivator,” says Hillyer. “Save money, save time, save headaches.”

It comes down to cost savings. It’s not a big stretch to convince someone that if you save on costs like irrigation, your profits are going to go up. “It’s just one step to that conclusion.”

Precision irrigation is being adopted in several places across the United States, but Hillyer says it hasn’t been adopted on a broad scale based on responses to the USDA Farm and Ranch Irrigation and Water Management Survey.

“There are some trends, like California, you see that has the highest sort of rate of adoption of scientific irrigation scheduling and soil moisture sensor use, but they still don’t have parity with the perception-based methods,” he says. “That makes me think that while precision irrigation is being adopted, it’s not being adopted everywhere.”

He says that there are really two approaches to water resource management: perception-based and scientific-based, which would be considered a form of precision irrigation.

“If you separate them [growers] into two groups, you’ll see that the perception-based methods are used a lot more than the scientific-based methods,” says Hillyer. “If scientific-based irrigation scheduling were broadly adopted, I would expect it to have the same level as the perception-based methods, and they don’t. It’s a pretty wide margin, and it’s been that way for a long time.”

The reason for this, Hillyer suggests, is not because farmers are opposed to trying new methods.

“I’ve seen growers that adopt every scrap of technology they can possibly find and try it out and then throw it away because it turns out it just wasn’t that useful,” he says. “There wasn’t enough embodied benefit to make it worth continuing to do it. I don’t remember meeting very many, if any, farmers that were unwilling to try something new as long as it made sense.”

One of the current problems is platform accessibility, says Hillyer. Right now, the farmer has to be the data analyst. While there are some analytical tools out there, keeping them developing and funded can be difficult. When the funding stops, the updates can taper off.

There is also the need for integration across systems before wide-scale, broad adoption of these precision irrigation tools and methods becomes practical for the grower.

“The burden is still largely, but not universally, on the grower,” he says. “If systems integrate between automation and decision systems, if that actually happens, then a grower could choose to be just a steward and not an analyst. From my point of view, all of those other things have to be built, available, trusted and purchased by the farm, and that’s not happening yet.”

The benefit is there, Hillyer reiterates, adding that access to actionable data can provide a means of resiliency that will benefit the farmer in the short and long term.

“After you do precision ag on one location for many years, you now have this history of data that tells you what’s been going on,” he says. “The more data you get, the better decisions you can make because you know more about the field.”

That’s tough to sell to growers who’ve been working the same ground for 30 years because they already know so much about the soil. “But they don’t know it in a way that you can plug it into a machine and crunch the numbers and save them some time on decision-making,” Hillyer says. “On the planning side, I think there are some yet-to-be-exploited opportunities from precision agriculture, especially in the data that comes from precision agriculture.”

To address this challenge, Hillyer suggests that being flexible in resource utilization and implementing management strategies that align with climate-smart principles are crucial. This requires a willingness to embrace innovative approaches and capitalize on the data-driven insights offered by precision agriculture.

“Some of the management opportunities or management things that you need to do to be more climate-smart and adapt to climate change are going to be around adapting to extreme weather events,” Hillyer says. “This means you will need to be able to be more flexible in how you use your resources.”

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