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Cost-share program works to slice energy costs

Representatives from the conservation arm of the federal government made a recent stop in the Mississippi Delta to announce a new piece of technology aimed at saving water on the farm.

Touting the publicity campaign, “Smart Irrigation Month,” USDA Deputy Undersecretary Merlyn Carlson was a guest on a cotton field outside Yazoo City, Miss. On 220 acres farmed by Byron Seward and his son, Darrington, a sophisticated device will be installed in the control panel of an irrigation pivot sometime this fall.

It's soil-mapping technology that increases irrigation efficiency with a computer chip that enables boom nozzles to detect areas that need more water. The device can be installed in existing center pivot systems.

James Johnson, conservationist with the Natural Resource Conservation Service for the Greenwood, Miss., region, said the smart irrigation controller will be the first of its kind in the state.

“This is cutting edge, innovative technology. We've used similar technology in other agricultural aspects, such as insecticides, but it's just that water has been so cheap (in the Delta) and there hasn't been the incentive. But that's changing,” Johnson said.

Through the NRCS Environmental Quality Incentives Program, a farmer can conditionally purchase a smart controller at a 50 percent cost-share.

Byron said while the water savings will be an important advantage — minimizing both gratuitous irrigating and ditch runoff — the cost savings will be spent on other management expenses, such as fuel and fertilizer costs.

“Plus, it will help produce more-consistent yields across the field,” he said.

Johnson said the Sewards were familiar with the technology and acted quickly to take advantage of the cost-share program. He said other farmers should consider investing in the technology while the cost-share opportunity is available.

“Once this technology becomes popular, there won't be the financial (assistance) incentive,” he said.

Carlson said applying the smart technology to irrigation is USDA's third target area. Earlier this year, the USDA unveiled smart technology aimed at increased efficiency in tillage and fertilizing.

“Our researchers say that the three phases together can save $2 billion annually in energy costs from nutrients, chemicals and water,” Carlson said. “This is the threshold of where we are going — the chapter is just opening — and these are the prototypes. We have to go this way to use less water, less nutrients, and less energy and to save money.”

He noted that farmers and their ag groups are approaching federal agencies for help with exorbitant energy costs. But, he said, limited financial resources remain a big obstacle to the agency's promotional efforts and assistance.

“We are in a competitive global war for food production. We are able to compete because of technology. But we can't rest on our laurels; we must move forward.

“But we have not only the technology, we have the entrepreneurialism, the infrastructure and the will to put it all together. That's our edge, but we must continue to be on the move with it.

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