This article originally appeared in Irrigation Today. Here is a link to the Irrigation Today article or you can read the full text below.
The amount of technology we incorporate into our everyday lives has increased exponentially over the last decade. Our cell phones are no longer simple devices for communication. They have become our calendars, cameras, computers, navigation and almost everything else in between. I can control the temperature of my house, unlock the front door and monitor who is standing on my porch with a simple voice command to my smart home device — literally without lifting a finger.
Yet on many farms, a typical irrigation event consists of an irrigator manually opening valves in the field, turning on the pump, and then monitoring pressures and flow rates and checking for potential issues throughout the field. Once the irrigation event is complete, the irrigator must hurry back to shut off the pump, close the valves and then repeat the process over again for the next set. At the end of the day there is little to no data collected or verification of water or fertilizers applied.
Embracing Tech Options
Sensor technologies such as moisture probes, aerial imagery and digital flow meters have provided aides to growers and irrigators, but there are many proven technologies that growers may not be aware of that originate from other sectors of agriculture that can be useful in today’s conventional growing practices.
In a controlled environment, agricultural precision irrigation is not only a standard practice but incorporated into every other aspect of operations. In fully controlled systems, irrigation scheduling is programmed and adjusted with the use of several different types of sensors, from moisture and light intensity to media weight. These systems can determine when to irrigate based on transpiration calculations that incorporate substrate media weight and drain quantities, and they can even filter out external conditions such as harvest or other plant handling.
These platforms have decades of experience in automation and control specifically in respect to plant growth and agriculture. Irrigation and fertigation controls are on the same platform as the environmental controls, energy management systems and even labor tracking. These control systems not only provide a centralized platform and management system but also collect all the appropriate data. With the ability to track fertilizer and water use with climate to the exact harvest is priceless.
With increasing labor pressure, water restrictions and other regulations, growers are embracing technology in irrigation more and more. The use of the established, controlled-environment technologies in traditional agriculture has become a solution that more growers are willing to look at. Some of the initial incorporations were slow and had a steep learning curve but have since become much more user-friendly. Examples include simple valve and pump control, down to full fertigation and integrated autonomous growing. We have incorporated these technologies on everything from permanent crops to open field hydroponic fresh berries.
These solutions have also welcomed other technologies onto their platforms, and the integrations between traditional agriculture irrigation solutions and controlled-environment agriculture solutions is ever-changing. The use of these technologies expands beyond irrigation and fertigation and has opened the door to other solutions that would be otherwise overlooked in traditional agriculture. Reverse osmosis water systems, ultraviolet light treatment systems, source blending and drain water collection systems are a few that have become popular among growers. We are able to use solutions available today in agriculture to tackle new issues such as fertilizer tracking and water application data.
Forecasting The Future
As the future of agriculture evolves, the incorporation of established irrigation technologies will help the growth of future solutions. Platforms that are geared toward traditional agriculture are emerging and growing to handle a market for more advanced irrigation systems. Many of these companies initially focused on soil moisture and monitoring but are expanding into control and fertigation. Precision irrigation is transforming in all aspects, from more advanced sprinkler and drip products to more efficient pumps and control valves, as well as the incorporation of automated technologies.
Farmers are transforming the way they grow crops, as consumers are looking for more controlled and tracked food sources. Indoor and greenhouse growing, although standard in some parts of the world, are new to most of us. The growers who are incorporating automation and control platforms in their precision irrigation practices are the same growers who will be transitioning portions of their acres to indoor controlled environment agriculture. The same technologies that are now available to them for their traditional growing applications will be the ones they turn to when they install their first acres of greenhouse crops.
Precision irrigation of the future will also see a transformation of the on-farm irrigator position. When considering the importance of water for crop growth and nutrient delivery, the irrigator is one of the most important roles on the farm, but it is not always the most valued. With the addition of technologies and other tools to help the grower, the irrigator will move from a role that opens and closes valves to one that monitors control systems and provides data feedback for future decision-making. This, paired with the future availability of labor and the cost of labor with agriculture hours changing, will be additional drivers for growers to take a second look at their current irrigation practices.
One day, will we be able to ask our smart devices to tell us soil moisture or irrigation system health from anywhere in the world? Will we have the ability to determine the best yield capable based on historically tracked data and machine learning? Most definitely.