Farmers do not have enough water. Can AI help?

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For the fourth time in 10 years, the farmers I know in California are facing a stark reality — they won’t see a drop of water from the federal government’s reserves to supplement the little they get from Mother Nature.

Water allocation has become a contentious issue across the state as citizens, environmentalists and farmers fight for their fair share in a drought that has made it impossible to please everyone.

With no help from the reserves, farms have been left to draw water from the ground where they can. Working with a fraction of their usual supply, many farmers have no choice but to leave fields fallow, a devastating blow to their bottom line. For smaller farms, this could be the beginning of the end.

But I also saw a very different approach.

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Precision agriculture – the use of technology like networked sensors and artificial intelligence – is helping farmers survive without the water they once had. The efficiencies are real and the impact is tangible. I’ve seen up close how precision agriculture is making a difference for farms facing extreme droughts.

But embracing this technology is not always easy. In fact, it fundamentally requires revisiting our relationship with water in agriculture.

From data to delivery

When it comes to irrigation, precision agriculture gives farmers an advantage in two areas: understanding how their water is being used and maximizing delivery to stay alive.

On the understanding front, the data is complementing – and in some cases rewriting – irrigation practices that have been developed over generations. Irrigation was, and still is, seen as an art form. Farmers have long relied on rules of thumb based on visual signs of water stress in crops or insights gained from working the land for decades. This eventually led to irrigation being based on general sentiment, and not much else.

But this art form is turning into a science as we gain access to hard data, both at the individual plant and aggregate level. This data is stronger than the circumstantial evidence they used to base decisions on, giving them the ability to see what used to be hidden. I will share an example that is close to home.

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My organization now has over a billion trees under observation in orchards around the world, with sensors reporting data every 10 minutes on variables such as soil moisture, water absorption, and trunk diameter. With so much information, important correlations emerge that were previously unnoticed. Most of these sensors and the data they collect aren’t new – but they’ve always been presented separately and required a trained eye and purposeful time to extract meaning. That’s precious time that producers don’t have.

Now, with so much information available in one place, these systems can anticipate how soil moisture will be affected by factors like temperature, humidity and wind, and translate that into predictive algorithms. Herein lies the real potential of this technology: a prescription of exactly where and when to water. The result is the ability to maximize crop-per-drop to a level unthinkable even a few years ago.

But knowing that a particular row of trees needs water means very little unless you have the technology to get the water there.

This brings me to the second point – maximizing delivery. According to the World Bank, agriculture accounts for about 70% of the world’s water use, and even the most efficient methods still result in significant waste.

This is where precision agriculture is helping farmers improve. The key is in combining this data-driven information with pumps and valves that are smart, agile and responsive enough to deliver water exactly when and where it is needed.

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Currently, farmers have a single valve servicing a large block of trees. Irrigation is controlled by physically sending someone to the water pump and its control valves. The length of time water is applied is largely determined by how long it takes a person to finish other tasks before returning to the field to turn off the water. Labor laws also come into play – if the best time to turn off the water is after hours, the water usually stays on until the next morning. Some fields inevitably receive too much water, releasing nutrients, wasting energy and eroding the soil, while others receive too little water, compromising plant health, productivity and quality. Drown this formula and these inefficiencies become an even bigger problem.
With precision agriculture, networked valves and pumps allow water supply automatically, providing enough water without wastage caused by human factors. Over time, with hardware and software development, the large irrigation blocks we know today can be broken down into smaller sections, making it possible to apply water exactly where it is needed most. Irrigation is on its way to being a blunt instrument for a resource that can be micro-targeted to a much more precise level.

There is no way forward without efficiency

These solutions could not have come at a better time. Although California is in the news right now for its three-year drought, water shortages are a familiar challenge to farmers around the world.

The global population is expected to exceed 9 billion by 2050, which will require a massive increase in food production – while the world’s freshwater supplies dwindle. It is an unsustainable situation, which should fuel conflicts in the coming decades.

These pressures are already falling squarely on the backs of individual farmers. When you can’t get water through government allocations, you have to buy it from more expensive sources. For the farmers we deal with, it is often one of the biggest expenses in their annual budget.

The good news is that farmers adopting precision agriculture are seeing results, with researchers suggesting that networked sensor-based irrigation can reduce water use by between 10 and 25%, with variability based on crop type and geography. . As technology improves, this number will only increase. While not a panacea, this boost can go a long way toward surviving a drought without leaving fields fallow or demolishing orchards.

As food insecurity grows, serious conversation is needed about how we prioritize water use. Environmental concerns will have to be reconciled with basic human needs. Decades-old water allocation rules may need to be revised, not to mention outdated policy initiatives. Fortunately, there are concrete, actionable steps individual farmers can take now to make a difference. The technology currently exists to do more with less, and there is no way forward without it.

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