An annual check-up

02/01/2009 02:00:00 AM

For best results with the system, don’t skimp on quality, make sure sprinklers are not clogged, pipes don’t leak and irrigation ditches are in good condition.

On the management side, the best farmers have high-efficiency systems that are well maintained and well designed. And they either seek out consultants to help with their irrigation scheduling or hire their own people who help make decisions about when and how much water to apply, he says.

Keep up with technology
Savvy growers have found that staying on top of the latest irrigation techniques can result in a higher quality crop as well as substantial financial savings.

Until 1988, for example, Sam Accursio used 100 percent overhead irrigation at Sam Accursio Farms in Homestead, Fla. The 2,000-acre farm grows pickling cucumbers, squash and beans.

The system required 12 overhead pumps, 12 trucks, 12 workers and “12 sets of problems,” he says.

Then he switched most of his irrigation to a pivot system that required only one unit and less than one person to operate.
The pivot system is more efficient because it requires less pressure and applies water more evenly and closer to the plant. When the wind blew, the overhead system sometimes missed the crop by 3 feet, Accursio says.

The pivot system paid for itself within eight years, thanks to lower fuel costs. He estimated when he installed the system that it required 60 percent less fuel per 40-acre block to operate than the overhead system.

Waste not, want not
As ranch manager at VF Farms, which grows almonds, wheat and cotton near Fresno, Calif., Paul Betancourt has never had water to waste.

“We’ve always been very careful,” he says.

Orchards are “lasered flat,” which helps ensure an irrigation efficiency rate of more than 80 percent, even though the company uses flood irrigation, he says.

Betancourt uses skip-row irrigation for cotton, irrigating every other row. This technique not only conserves water, but it prevents the soil from becoming saturated, which can seal off the roots of the plants.

He also uses a pressure bomb—sometimes called a pressure chamber—from PMS Instrument Co. in Corvallis, Ore. It’s a chamber filled with nitrogen gas that measures plant stress caused by a lack of water, also known as the stem water potential.

VF Farms uses the device for cotton, but the PMS Web site——says it “has been shown especially helpful in the almond orchard.” It adds that plant-based measurements are “extremely helpful in keeping the orchard well irrigated for optimal growth but not over-irrigated.”

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