Farmers are faced with constant pricing pressures, water limitations and labor shortages, leading many to seek solutions to help them be more innovative and efficient in growing their crops. Technology and food companies alike are turning to the Internet of Things (IoT) to help.
AT&T, for example, is working with WaterBit to grow more asparagus in California. The companies are helping Devine Organics conserve water in the drought-prone state through the use of sensors and software that enable much more precise irrigation.
WaterBit installed small, solar-powered sensors across the asparagus fields that collect information on soil moisture and other field conditions. They require no maintenance and are placed under the foliage, so they don’t interfere with field work and harvests. Data from the sensors is sent to a communications hub that can be thousands of feet away. The hub then uses AT&T IoT technology to send data over the AT&T LTE network to the WaterBit app. There, the information is analyzed to determine if a section of the field needs more or less water, and the farmer can access the data 24/7 and remotely control irrigation from their smartphone, turning valves on and off.
Since installing WaterBit sensors on a 40-acre field in December 2017, Devine Organics has harvested nearly twice as much asparagus from the field and reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by 5 percent due to the drop in fuel used for pumping water and truck trips to manually check the fields. The technology has granted Devine Organics the potential to reduce its water usage by more than 750,000 gallons — the equivalent of more than 43,000 Americans skipping a shower for a day.
More than 50 percent of water used in U.S. beef production is dedicated to irrigating the row crops that become feed for cattle. As such, improving access to information and technology for farmers could conserve water and help reduce the beef industry’s environmental impact.
“Ranchers and farmers are doing important work to make sure that they are protecting our natural resources for future generations. We all need to continue to adapt to a changing marketplace and a changing climate, and this project helps to improve water use efficiency in irrigated row crops used as cattle feed,” said Diane Herndon, senior sustainability manager at Nestlé Purina.
Part of a new three-year water project led by The Nature Conservancy, the Nebraska project will install Arable Labs, Inc. weather sensors in crop fields and use IoT technology on sprinklers connected to a smartphone app. The project will also use Field to Market’s FieldPrint® Platform to track progress.
“By using smart weather sensor technology in row crop irrigation, this program could help save 2.4 billion gallons of irrigation water over three years, which is equivalent to roughly 7,200 households over that time period,” said Hannah Birge, water and agriculture program manager at The Nature Conservancy. “The reduction of pumping also means less energy used and less labor expense for farmers.”
Nebraska was selected for the project, as it has the largest share of irrigated acres in the U.S., and the second largest cattle population. The Ogallala Aquifer, which spans the majority of the state, provides water to nearly one-fifth of wheat, corn, cotton and cattle produced in the U.S. and is the main water supply for people throughout the High Plains region. Grower and conservation efforts maintain the wetlands and sandbar islands of the Platte River, which provides habitat and clean water for people and wildlife.
The project was initiated through the efforts of the Midwest Row Crop Collaborative, a group of leading companies and conservation organizations – including Cargill and The Nature Conservancy – that is focused on advancing and accelerating farmer-led programs in water conservation, water quality, and soil health in key agricultural states. By engaging the Midwest Row Crop Collaborative, best practices from the Nebraska project can extend to farmers in other regions.
“This project builds upon the success of a 2014 pilot in Western Nebraska, where we studied irrigation patterns and examined the impact on watersheds,” said Roric Paulman, Farmer Advisor of the Western Nebraska Irrigation Project. “Through collaborations like these, we will leave a legacy of water quantity and quality for generations.”
Earlier this year, The Nature Conservancy announced other water-focused corporate partnerships, including an extension of their work in Arizona, Utah and Texas through its work with PepsiCo and further protection for four watersheds through a donation from Tom’s of Maine.