During most of this last year, Suwannee County, Fla., farmer Sammy Starling never had to guess when he did or didn’t need to water his corn. With a new smart-agriculture technology, he could access soil moisture readings right from his phone with updates every three hours.
This information helped Starling determine when to turn on the irrigation system and when to skip a cycle. “It’s a window to the underground world,” he said.
Thanks to a University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Extension experimental trial, Starling was one of three farmers in the Suwannee River Valley who got the chance to test drive this water-saving technology.
By showing farmers how to use and benefit from these sensors, the trial encouraged producers to adopt best management practices set out by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, said Patrick Troy, regional specialized agent in row crops who has spearheaded the initiative.
Starting in November 2015, Troy began supplying participating farmers with soil moisture sensors and teaching them how to use the devices and interpret data. With these data, farmers could make more informed decisions about when and how much to water their crops. Proper timing and rates ultimately save water, Troy explained.
Commercial soil moisture sensors are far more sophisticated and expensive than those intended for home landscapes, Troy said, which is why they aren’t more widely used. Cost share helps get these tools into more growers’ fields, but short term benefits (including fuel savings and yield) provide a quick payback.
On average, the three farmers in the trial saved about 8 percent in water expenditures due to the sensors, said Troy. With 142,000 acres of irrigated land in the Suwannee River Valley, wider adoption of this technology could make a big impact on the region, he added.
“Our early return on water efficiency and yield boost suggests more work is needed to see how many farmers will implement water- and resource-saving strategies,” said Troy. “We’ve heard from users that they are very excited about the technology and agree that it has potential.”
However, adopting BMPs now means that these farms are getting ahead of the game, said Troy. “We can’t manage what is not monitored. Soil moisture sensors are one tool that producers can use to document their water usage and manage their impact on this valuable resource,” he said.
The program will continue next year, and the three farmers are already on board, Troy said.