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With climate change and reduced water availability affecting growers across California, an efficient irrigation system is essential to the success of your farming endeavor. Read on to learn more about things to consider when deciding how to design the most efficient irrigation method for your farm.

Characteristics of an Efficient Irrigation System

Just like humans, plants need water to survive. Without it, they are unable to complete the process of photosynthesis and soon wither and die. An irrigation system that results in healthy crops will provide the right amount of water for each crop at the right times so that evapotranspiration can occur and plants can grow healthy and strong.

An Efficient Irrigation System Reaches the Roots

Because plants draw water up through their roots, it makes sense that the most efficient irrigation method would deliver the water directly to where it’s needed: the roots. Irrigation systems that achieve this include:

  • Hydroponics
  • Aquaponics
  • Floating beds and riverbank crops (such as the chinampas of Mexico)
  • Wicking beds
  • Drip irrigation

Whereas the first three systems irrigate the plants in a (more or less) closed system with nutrients being supplied via a water-soluble fertilizer or fish manure, wicking beds store excess water in layers of sand and rocks below the root and soil system. This water is then wicked up into the roots of the plants — resulting in a drier soil surface (this discourages weeds) and a reduced need for watering.

Drip Irrigation as the Preferred Method for Large-Scale Farming

For watering large areas of farmland, drip irrigation is the most efficient irrigation system for reducing water and fertilizer loss. By filtering the water down through the soil and into the root system, some of the water percolates down into the groundwater system to be reused for irrigating in future years.

Increase Filtration with Organic Material

To increase the amount of topsoil, reduce evaporation, and encourage filtration, research supports the addition of organic material such as humus-rich compost and mulch. You can also add stepping stones or dedicated pathways in your fields to prevent soil compaction.

To achieve a cleaner recharge of groundwater and above-ground water reserves with the water that does filter into and off your land, you can select food-grade, biodegradable pesticides and treat your runoff irrigation water with a reed bed and/or small wetlands filtration system before directing the flow of water off of the property.

An Efficient Irrigation System Adjusts to the Season and Climate

Just as irrigating in the heat of the day will result in the greatest water loss through evaporation, watering at the most dormant point of a plant’s growth cycle can also result in wasted irrigation water and cause root rot. The most efficient irrigation method will deliver the right amount of water at the time when plants are best able to synthesize it, meaning irrigating:

  • In the evening in summer (to avoid boiling the roots)
  • In the morning in winter (to avoid an overnight root freeze)
  • During the plant’s most active growth phases

In a tropical climate with plenty of rain, crops might not need watering during three-six months of the year. However, in the dry climate of California, year-round watering with an efficient irrigation system is a necessity — especially for water-intensive crops like wine grapes and almonds.

Reducing the Need for Water with Ecosystem-Based Farming Techniques

A pineapple sitting on a pathway in a forest

With the recent resurgence of Permaculture growing techniques, growers are re-discovering age-old traditions of cultivation that use less water while producing a higher total yield. For example, planting a new crop next to a taller, existing crop or line of trees provides shade, protection, and better water retention in the soil for the new plants until they grow tall enough to thrive on their own.

Food Forests

Food forests provide a synergistic way to achieve a more efficient irrigation system by having each tree perform multiple functions as they would in a natural ecosystem. For example, the upper story provides shade and protection for the mid-story and under-story trees while smaller bushes and groundcover plants hold moisture in the soil and ensure adequate drainage. Trees and bushes provide habitat for animals and wildlife, who in turn help with pest control and fertilizing.

In California, several exotic fruits and herbs are being grown successfully in food forests (see examples here) and these ideas could be adapted to include more standardized rows and fewer different species with pathways in between for easier harvesting. An efficient irrigation system for this kind of set-up could involve solar-powered drip-irrigation that is run twice a week — adjusting as needed according to the season and plant types.

New Irrigation Technologies

For those who prefer a conventional approach to agriculture, new solar-powered irrigation technologies can help you to reduce your water consumption and carbon footprint while ensuring that your plants receive the right amount of moisture. Building an efficient irrigation system based on solar technology involves the use of solar pumps and solar-powered soil sensors.

Solar Pumps

Intended primarily to reduce the use of fossil fuels, 50-watt solar panels can replace the coal-based electricity that is normally used to power 12-volt pumps. These pumps move water into the storage tank, from where it gravity-feeds into the drip irrigation system. Typically, this size system can move 350-700 gallons of water to the storage tank per hour.

Soil Sensors

Another innovation in the most efficient and modern irrigation methods is the invention of solar-powered soil sensors. These probe-style sensors collect data relating to soil moisture and upload this data to a secure, cloud-based network via the LTE mobile network. This information can then be accessed on your computer or smart device and used to adjust irrigation schedules without having to travel to each site in person.

Find the Most Efficient Irrigation System for Your Farm with FGS

Fruit Growers Supply specializes in helping growers develop the most efficient irrigation methods for their unique situation to reduce loss and boost productivity. Learn more by reading our blog and contact our team to schedule your free water analysis and ask us about custom irrigation solutions today!

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