Convincing growers

I recently attended the California Irrigation Institute Conference, and one of the presenters who is also an irrigation dealer shared his experiences on why growers continue to use historical methods to schedule irrigation. He said that growers will not widely adopt the latest irrigation scheduling technologies unless they are mandated to do so through regulation or convinced that the technology will improve profitability.

I will focus on the latter reason noted for lack of adoption. A golden opportunity exists for an irrigation scheduling technology that is simple, integrates easily with existing systems on the farm and can demonstrate return on investment. There also needs to be a shift in the business model from that which focuses on selling hardware or equipment to one focused on selling solutions that address clearly identified needs. There are many existing technologies with a lot of potential, and many land-grant universities have also developed irrigation schedulers that are free and robust (e.g., CropManage, KanSched, Wise, iCrop, etc.).

A golden opportunity exists for technology that is simple, integrates easily with existing systems on the farm and can demonstrate return on investment.

Condition of crop Feeling of soil Calendar schedule Water delivery schedule Soil moisture sensor Watching neighbors Daily ET reports Scheduling service Plant water status Crop simulation models

Isaya Kisekka inspects a small footprint cosmic ray neutron probe soil moisture system that can also measure soil water over the entire tomato field at the University of California, Davis research farm.

The latest innovations in artificial intelligence and cloud computing combined with the ability to collect large volumes of data from low-cost soil water sensors, plant water status sensors, drones, airplanes and satellites present opportunities for optimized irrigation water management on an individual farm-by-farm basis.

Precision irrigation is a very interesting concept that, if implemented properly, could transform irrigation management and improve economic and environmental

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outcomes. You can think of precision irrigation as a systems approach to irrigation management in which the irrigation system knows what to do, knows how to do it, knows what it has done and how it effects the overall production goals, and then learns from what it has done before performing the next irrigation. You can imagine such a system as having a brain and capable of not just automatic but autonomous operation of the entire irrigation system similar to a self-driving car.

While I confess that this is more of a vision for the future, we need a disruptive irrigation management technology that will meet growers’ various goals, including production, regulatory compliance, labor shortages, water and energy use efficiency, greenhouse gas reduction, etc. In the same way that we all have smartphones because they have proven to be very useful gadgets for doing more than making calls, I envision precision irrigation technology being widely adopted because it meets a grower’s real- world needs.

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Figure 2. Methods used to decide when to irrigate as reported in the last five USDA Irrigation and Water Management Surveys (formerly Farm and Ranch Irrigation Survey)

Isaya Kisekka, PhD, is an assistant professor of agricultural water management and irrigation engineering in the departments of land, air and water resources and biological and agricultural engineering at the University of California, Davis. 29

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