FFA members learn about conservation while helping farmers save water
Driving through Oregon’s agricultural areas in the summer, it’s difficult to miss the variety of irrigation systems raining much-needed water over field after field of fruits, vegetables, grains and grasses.
After conducting a series of irrigation efficiency tests for local growers, FFA members LeeAnn Pallett and Korey Kelly can tell you there’s a lot more to it than just turning on the faucet. The two have seen first-hand how growers can use careful planning and monitoring to produce vigorous crops while saving a lot of water.
“I didn’t think it could be that accurate, but these irrigation systems are really good and help farmers use less water,” LeeAnn explained.
This summer, the two Banks High School students signed on to help six local farmers measure how much and how evenly their irrigation systems apply water.
Blueberry grower Kevin Duyck, who was once an FFA member himself, appreciates the help from LeeAnn and Korey. “They’re a small, but effective crew!” he said.
Duyck and the other farmers participate in a voluntary conservation program, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, of the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). Through the program, NRCS provides technical expertise and partial funding for efficient irrigation upgrades. For their part, the farmers pay a portion of equipment costs and agree to closely plan and monitor their water use. Called irrigation water management, this intensive approach requires tests of an irrigation system’s efficiency. These tests can be time-consuming for farmers during a busy time of year.
Having worked with schools in the past, the local NRCS conservation office contacted FFA advisor Tim Eggleston to see if his students were interested in helping out.
“It’s a great experience for them to get outside to learn about agriculture and conservation, especially over the summer,” said Eggleston, who accompanies the students to each site.
NRCS trained the students to conduct the tests. For each, LeeAnn and Korey place evenly spaced catch cans in sample areas of a field. After running the sprinklers for 20 minutes, they measure the water collected, noting which areas are wetter than others.
The information gathered during the test is factored along with data on plant water needs and climate. The result is the percent efficiency, or percentage of water delivered by the irrigation system that is actually used by the crop. Common water losses include system leaks, uneven distribution over the field, water running off-field before infiltrating into the soil, and water evaporating before it reaches the ground.
“I thought all systems were the same, but they’re not,” Korey said.
With the efficiency information, a grower can determine whether adjustments to factors like run time, nozzle pressure, and even the size of the water droplets will help them conserve water while still meeting crop needs.
Duyck describes an irrigation test he conducted on a field a few years ago when it had a different system. “It was just 65 percent efficient and wasn’t putting enough water on the plants right by the nozzles,” he said.
With improved equipment in place, Duyck says he’s closer to 85 percent efficient on the same field. This means that he doesn’t need to run his sprinklers as long to get enough water to his blueberries.
On a Willamette Valley blueberry field, a 20-percent increase in irrigation efficiency could save more than 130,000 gallons per acre in just one growing season.
Duyck plans to use the test results to keep tweaking his systems. With better irrigation distribution, he will maintain yields and save water, as well as the energy to run the pumps. According to him, it just makes sense all around. “The more efficient we get, the more money we can make in the end,” he said.
As for LeeAnn and Korey, both are juniors in high school this year. This summer’s on-farm experiences could ultimately help them as they look into possible college careers in agriculture and animal sciences.
“This was a great project for LeeAnn and Korey,” said Eggleston. “They were able
to get out, meet, and network with local farmers, learning about different
operations and crops. This project also served as a great learning laboratory.
Agriculture and natural resources really are applied sciences, and as a teacher
it is awesome to be able to take a student’s learning beyond the traditional
classroom and into the ‘real world.’ Experiences such as these are invaluable.”
October 1, 2009
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