Farmers Don’t Have Enough Water. Can AI Help?

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For the fourth time in 10 years, farmers I know in California are facing a harsh 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 allocations have become a hot topic across the state as citizens, environmentalists and farmers fight for their fair share in a drought that has made it impossible for everyone to please.

Without any help from the reserves, the 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 the fields fallow, a devastating success for their results. For smaller farms, this may be the beginning of the end.

But I’ve also seen a very different approach.

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Precision farming, the use of technology such as networked sensors and artificial intelligence, is helping farmers overcome themselves without the water they had before. The efficiencies are real and the impact is tangible. I have seen up close how precision farming is making a difference for farms facing extreme drought.

But adopting this technology is not always easy. In fact, it requires a fundamental overhaul of our relationship with water in agriculture.

From data to delivery

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

In terms of comprehension, the data complement — and in some cases rewrite — irrigation practices that have been developed over generations. Irrigation was, and still is, seen as an art form. Farmers have long relied on empirical rules based on visual signs of water stress on crops or on knowledge gained from working the land for decades. This eventually led to watering being based on a general feeling, and not much else.

But this art form is transforming into a science as we have access to specific data, both at the level of individual plants and at the aggregate level. These data are stronger than the circumstantial evidence on which the decisions were based, giving them a chance to see what was hidden before. I will share an example that is close to home.

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My organization now has more than a billion trees under observation in orchards around the world, with sensors that report data every 10 minutes on variables such as soil moisture, water absorption, and trunk diameter. With so much information, key correlations emerge that previously went unnoticed. Most of these sensors and the data they collect are not new, but they have always been presented separately and have required a trained eye and a certain amount of time to get the meaning out of them. It’s a 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 such as temperature, humidity, and wind, and translate it into predictive algorithms. Herein lies the real potential of this technology: a prescription for where to water exactly and when. The result is the ability to maximize “drop collection” to an unthinkable level even a few years ago.

But knowing that a certain row of trees needs water means very little unless you have the technology to carry water with it.

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 generate significant waste.

This is where precision farming is helping farmers do better. The key is to combine this data-driven knowledge with smart pumps and valves that are agile and sensitive enough to supply water exactly when and where it is needed.

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Currently, farmers have a single valve that serves a large block of trees. Irrigation is controlled by physically sending someone to the water pump and its control valves. The duration of the water application is largely determined by the time it takes for that person to complete 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 often stays on until the next morning. Some fields inevitably receive too much water, leaching nutrients, wasting energy and eroding the soil, while others receive too little water, which compromises the health, yield and quality of the plants. Pour a drought into this formula and these inefficiencies become an even bigger problem.
With precision farming, networked valves and pumps make it possible to supply water automatically, providing enough water, without wasting human-caused waste. Over time, with the further development of both hardware and software, the large irrigation blocks we know today could be broken down into smaller sections, allowing water to be applied exactly where it is most needed. Irrigation is well on its way from being a powerful tool to a resource that can be micro-oriented to a much more accurate level.

There is no way forward without efficiency

These solutions could not have come at a better time. While California is in the news now for its three-year drought, water scarcity is a family challenge for farmers around the world.

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

These pressures are already falling directly on individual farmers. When water cannot be obtained through government allocations, it must be purchased 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 who adopt precision farming are seeing results, and researchers suggest that networking based on sensor sensors can reduce water consumption by 10 to 25%, with variability depending on the type. cultivation and geography. As technology improves, that number will only increase. While not a panacea, this impetus can go a long way in surviving a drought without leaving fallow fields or orchards.

As food insecurity grows, serious conversation is needed on how to prioritize water use. Environmental concerns must be reconciled with basic human needs. Water allocation rules from decades ago may need to be revised, not to mention outdated political initiatives. Fortunately, there are concrete and actionable steps that individual farmers can take right now to make a difference. There is currently technology to do more with less, and there is no way forward without it.

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