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Former Member
Strawberry grower in the Pajaro Valley

Recently CERES invited me with a group of experts to visit California's Pajaro Valley, home to some of the most productive farmlands in the nation. The Pajaro Valley is largely dependent on groundwater for its farming needs.

Over the past several decades, groundwater pumping for agriculture and municipal use has led to an overdraft of the aquifers, leading to severe dropping of water levels and intrusion of seawater.

Some farmers turned to Watsonville’s recycled wastewater plant after their wells ran dry, but it doubled their overall water costs.

Exceptional drought conditions unprecedented in the past 1,200 years will cost California over $2 billion this year. California’s developed annual average water use is approximately 80 percent agriculture, 10 percent municipal and 10 percent residential.

Despite its struggles, the Pajaro Valley might still be ahead of the curve on water stewardship among California’s thousands of vegetable growers.

California faces currently a drought of historic proportions (here: Lake Oroville, CA)

The partners in the ‘Community Water Dialogue’ developed the idea to create a wireless irrigation network (entitled Project WIN) to help growers improve irrigation efficiency. The hope is to reduce water use in the region by 30% through optimized irrigation.

The WIN Project uses wireless communication towers and connects with sensor technology to measure soil tension in real time via the internet. Soil tension measures water needs and plant stress. This real time information allows growers to anticipate when to irrigate and for how long – therefore keeping crops growing in optimal conditions.

Data are transferred in real time to growers for improved irrigation decision-making. Early adopters are already seeing 15-30% water savings with little or no yield loss. The network drastically reduces the investment required by growers. Growers within the network simply rent or purchase field monitoring equipment, making this technology accessible to everyone. In the end improved irrigation efficiency can reduce expenses related to water and pumping, improve yield, reduce or eliminate water runoff, reduce nutrient inputs while improving top soil.

Pajaro Valley’s wireless irrigation network (WIN) coverage

But water risk management along the entire supply chain, from farm to fork, is still an issue. To a large extend it is still unclear to what measurement to use, and for whose purposes.

It takes roughly 12 gallons of water to grow a single head lettuce. Shippers typically draw on the same limited water resources when they wash—and in some cases triple wash—the same lettuce head. At the end of this supply chain, the lettuce is being sold as branded bag lettuces, comingled with other growers’ greens. That means farm level water use data is averaged in with many other growers’ data.

Farmers today have no idea how their measured water use is reported up the chain, and how the data are being used.

They also do not have any benchmark analysis how they compare to other growers.

The longer the supply chain, the weaker the connection between the farmer’s management information and the ultimate consumer. As a result, growers are still reluctant to report their data.

It takes roughly 12 gallons of water to grow a single lettuce head.

To overcome these challenges, future IT solutions in the agriculture space need to:

  • Standardize collection of water use data to streamline data gathering efforts
  • Offer radical transparency on how the data are being used and by whom; data also need to be anonymized and aggregated so baselines and benchmarks for water consumption of key regions and key crops can be established and generate best practices
  • Demonstrate why and how disclosure is a benefit, rather than just a mandate
  • Provide farmers and growers with benchmarking capabilities, or peer comparison data on their water use
  • Leverage data for collaboration with all key stakeholders, communities and other industries. Efficient use of water by farmers and growers is not achieving the goals if the remaining entities of the supply chain are not optimizing their water use

The growing visibility of drought and water challenges in California has created a new urgency and renewed momentum for action by companies, individuals and elected officials to take action on water stewardship at both the local and state levels.

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