Autonomous Irrigation Solutions Help California Growers Use Water Wisely
Sebastian Saa, Associate Director of the Almond Board of California, explains how the latest irrigation technology works to conserve a precious natural resource.
Meet Sebastien Saa at FIRA USA October 19th, 2022, panelist at the "Climate Smart Agriculture: Cutting Edge Irrigation Technologies" session.
If there’s one resource that’s consistently top of mind for growers around the world, it’s water. Agriculture depends on a farmer’s ability to properly irrigate the crops using a combination of surface water and groundwater. When growers struggle to water their crops, there are significant impacts on plant yields, product quality and the food system as a whole. The biggest issue is that freshwater is a limited resource, and growers need a lot of it.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, agriculture accounts for 70 percent of global freshwater withdrawals. In California, a state that produces 74 different commodities, 13 of which are exclusive to the Golden State, the California Department of Water Resources reports that 9.6 million acres of farmland is irrigated with 34 million acre-feet of water each year. When surface water and groundwater levels are low, irrigating crops becomes more challenging. Today’s farmers are feeling the pressure.
“Growers nowadays are suffering,” says Sebastian Saa, Associate Director of the Almond Board of California. “Many communities have experienced high input costs in the areas of fertilizer and irrigation. In California, not only do we have a huge drought where water is less available, but the water also becomes more expensive.”
“This has also led to the perfect storm with COVID, where logistics issues make it challenging to ship the products around the world,” Saa continues. “The end result of that is commodities prices aren’t as high as we’d like them to be. The combination of higher costs and lower prices makes for a complicated situation.”
With fewer resources at their disposal, growers everywhere have had to learn to work smarter. Maximizing efficiency is a must, particularly when drought conditions, low groundwater reserves and strict water use regulations restrict a farmer’s ability to irrigate the crop. The latest technologies are poised to help navigate the balance between meeting the crop’s water needs without wasting resources or stressing the plants.
“Technology helps with smarter farming and innovative practices, and growers here have relied on technology to help with this for many, many years,” Saa says. “If you’re looking at carbon footprint specifically, the main factors that will affect smart ag production are irrigation, nutrient management and pest management. Everything is about efficiency and management, which means knowing how much to apply, when to apply it and where to apply it. For irrigation, we used to broadcast the application. Nowadays, we use technified systems that allow growers to be much more precise on how water is applied to each individual tree.”
The technologies that Saa mentions include sensors (on the ground, in the trees and near the canopies), pressurized irrigation systems, remote monitoring systems, drones and satellite imagery. From the tensiometers that determine moisture levels in the soil to the canopy sensors that report the level of tree water stress, each solution helps growers monitor the plant’s water levels in various ways.
Armed with this information, growers are empowered to make more accurate application decisions. Today’s systems help to eliminate the guesswork. This is just the beginning. As more data is collected from sensors, sprayers, systems, drones and satellites, Saa foresees a world where irrigation becomes an increasingly autonomous process.
“The technology needle has moved significantly in the area of sensors, and a lot of different companies are offering these tools,” Saa says. “That’s one part of the puzzle. Going forward, I think it’s important for companies that are bringing a new sensor to market to integrate it with those already available to help growers take the information and make informed decisions. They need to know how much to water, for how many hours, when and in which orchards. A lot of the new technologies are giving small bits of information. We would like to see companies selling systems that give growers a full picture of the situation and enough data to make even better decisions.”
Saa, who hails from a family of table grape growers in Chile and has been linked to agriculture his entire life, also foresees autonomous technologies becoming more prevalent. Right now, he says, many growers still have manual systems that require workers to turn the valves on and off or manage certain technologies. In the future, more of these systems will be automated and controlled wirelessly on a tablet or smartphone.
To make it happen, however, Saa believes more companies need to work together. Although this is happening in some cases, there’s more work to be done. The same goes for encouraging budget-conscious growers to adopt these water-saving technologies.
“Growers have embraced some of the technologies, including sensors and pressurized irrigation systems, but I think there’s more to come,” Saa says. “There are different factors that will make adoption faster or slower. When prices are low, it’s hard to invest in new technology. But at the same time, when you have droughts and regulations like the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act that cause water prices to skyrocket, then there are those motivations to adopt better technology as well.”
For their part, the Almond Board of California helps to promote the technologies that are available to growers in the hopes of helping them conserve resources, save money and increase their profit margins. At the board’s annual conference, Saa and others work to ensure growers understand the research that’s been done on these technologies and are familiar with the companies that manufacture and sell the equipment.
The Almond Board of California has also been instrumental in working with companies to ensure their solutions meet the requirements for incentives, making the technologies more affordable for growers to implement.
“Creating awareness is the first step to trigger adoption,” Saa says. “I think we still have a long way to go, but the beauty of technology is that it never stops. It keeps growing, and we keep growing with it.”
To learn more about the Almond Board of California’s research, resources and grower outreach programs, visit www.almonds.com.