Tech corner

Techies invent solutions to ag water woes By Stephanie Thara

He calls it an “on-farm water accountant.” As Kevin France, CEO of SWIIM System, pulls up a dashboard full of color-coded maps and water projection animations on his computer screen, he zooms in on the planning screens and explains how his agtech company can help farmers manage water use more efficiently.

These types of software packages and services enable agricultural water users to optimize water rights, monitor the crop water budget, conserve water and increase net income for agricultural operations. Water use is tracked on the farm and inputted into the system; the data is then sent to individual growers and the respective district in the aggregate for monitoring and reporting. Owners are afforded the opportunity to increase income by leasing a portion of their consumptive use water rights to other users, without compromising underlying water rights.

These types of water-saving technologies are starting to become more prevalent — and it couldn’t have come at a better time. With the continual increase in regulations surrounding water use in agriculture, farmers are looking to both tradition and tech to grow more food with less water.

Irrigation improvements through tradition

Over the years, farmers have significantly boosted on-farm water-efficiency levels. Growers have implemented strategic water management tactics, such as switching to drip irrigation or microsprinklers; growing crops by using the water and fertilizing nutrients already in the soil; and experimenting with moving to less water-intensive crops.

In fact, compared to 50 years ago, California farmers grow 43 percent more food using the same amount of water. And they continue to keep producing more with less.

An eager crowd enters the Western Growers Center for Innovation and Technology in Salinas, California, during the grand opening on Dec. 10, 2015.

Don Cameron of Terranova Ranch in Helm, California, developed an innovative solution to recharge the groundwater basin that his farm and surrounding communities depended on during times of drought. In 2011, Cameron applied available floodwater on his cropland to recharge the groundwater basins that had been severely depleted by pumping. At the time, the idea of flooding agricultural fields to store excess rains in underground aquifers was unproven. As it turns out, the idea worked! Aided by gravity, the water seeped through the soil and filled up the basin — and the crops were unharmed. Now, Cameron’s idea has spurred partnerships between environmental groups, scientists and farmers to test how different crops respond to being flooded during off-season.

Increasing yield through technology

Farmers now have the opportunity to move the needle even further with the help of water technologists. At the Western Growers Center for Innovation and Technology in Salinas, California, SWIIM is among 36 startups developing technologies to solve agriculture’s biggest challenges, such as water quantity and quality. Western Growers launched the Center for Innovation and Technology as an agtech incubator, supporting budding entrepreneurs in their effort to bring their technology from development to production. Unique to the Center, Western Growers acts as a “matchmaker” and facilitates conversations between these startups and growers. That way, startups work with growers while developing their products to ensure that their solutions meet growers’ specific needs.

One of the newest residents of the Center, WaterBit, offers real- time and low-cost sensing systems to improve crop quality and yield by optimizing resource use. These low-cost moisture sensors notify growers when crops need water or additional nutrients, saving growers time and money by letting them know exactly how much water is needed in real time.

Aerial imagery startups such as GeoVisual Analytics and TerrAvion utilize imagery from satellites, drones and other methods to map a ranch or farm. Through the provided images and mapping analysis, farmers are now equipped with easy-to-use thermography technology to be able to see water (or lack thereof) before it damages their plants.

Stephanie Thara is the communications manager for Western Growers where she is responsible for

advancing the association’s strategic initiatives through social media, media relations and

content creation. Thara received a master’s degree in public administration, as well as a

bachelor’s degree in journalism-public relations, from California State University, Long Beach.

Photo credit: Western Growers Center for Innovation and Technology 30 Irrigation TODAY | July 2017

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