Note: This is part of a Research Update series that highlights projects funded by the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) Fertilizer Research and Education Program (FREP) Grant Program.
Project Title: Training on Crop Management that Integrates Climate, Soil and Irrigation System Data to Minimize Nutrient Loss and Optimize Irrigation Efficiency
Project Leaders: Trina Walley, East Stanislaus Resource Conservation District (ESRCD), and Dr. Khaled Bali, University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources (UCANR)
Project Status: Ongoing, Year 3
In California farming, balancing water and nitrogen (N) inputs to meet production goals while protecting water quality can be technically challenging. Thus, there is significant need for technical training for farmers and farm workers at all levels. This project addresses this need by providing irrigation and nutrient management trainings via field assessments and irrigation workshops. Over the past two years, this project has provided irrigation trainings in Spanish and English and executed over 50 field assessments covering almost 3,500 acres of irrigated agriculture. For the next two years, the project leads are improving the training materials while adjusting to COVID-19 requirements and will continue to offer field assessments to growers through 2021.
In farming, there has been increased development and adoption of technology to ensure water and nutrients are applied precisely and used efficiently. However, current technology cannot guarantee the successful execution of precision farming. Optimum irrigation and nutrient efficiency is only achieved with proper operation and maintenance, and adequate training of personnel who work with these systems. Additionally, understanding the resources on individual properties and the roles they play in agricultural operations is vital to maximizing irrigation and nutrient efficiency.
A previously funded Fertilizer Research and Education Program (FREP) research project titled “Water and Nitrogen Management: Recognizing and Adapting to Logistical Challenges at the Farm Field Level” brought attention to the difficulties that producers in the Central Coast region face when it comes to balancing water and N best management practices while meeting the production quantity and quality requirements demanded by the market. Dr. Marcus Buchanan, the project’s principle investigator, indicated that lack of technical training and trained employees is a major emerging issue regarding water and N management.
The current project with the ESRCD bridges this education gap through work that addresses the following objectives:
Objective 1: Promote best management practices through workshops in both English and Spanish for agricultural workers based on existing resources from University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE), Natural Resource Conservation Services (NRCS), National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT/ATTRA) and FREP.
Objective 2: Establish training materials and workshops that are approved for continuing education credits (CEUs) towards maintaining certifications through the Irrigation Association (IA), California Certified Crop Advisors (CCAs) and Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR).
Objective 3: Encourage irrigators to share individual challenges and successes in workshops to create a networking environment for ongoing farmer-to-farmer education.
This project uses three approaches to achieve the objectives above. These include educational workshops, in-field assessment and consultations, and evaluation and monitoring of the project activities and participants.
Educational workshops: Workshops are being held outside of peak irrigation season for landowners and irrigators to provide education on best management practices for irrigation and nutrient management. There are three types of workshops and the content for each is tailored depending on the needs of the attendees and their level of expertise:
- Off season irrigation workshops (Spanish and English)
- Advanced irrigation workshops
- Irrigation water management workshops hosted with NRCS
In-field assessments: Field assessments are performed with staff, Modesto Junior College interns and irrigators to collect data for chemical and physical soil properties, water use efficiency, distribution uniformity (DU), energy use and nutrient application. This work is executed in coordination with NRCS and Modesto Junior College, leveraging the resources of the organizations and providing hands-on training for students to move into careers in irrigation and agriculture.
Project monitoring and evaluation: The project leaders will collect pre- and post-surveys from landowners and irrigators at each workshop, tracking changes in knowledge and management and soliciting feedback on curriculum and information delivery methods. In-field assessment data are summarized and reported to agricultural operators. The project team uses these reports to document and facilitate discussions of changes and improvements in irrigation and nutrient management and efficiency.
Educational workshops: Early in the project, the project leads collected educational curriculum that incorporated existing resources from UCCE, NRCS, NCAT/ATTRA and FREP. These resources are being updated and have been translated to Spanish to be used in educational workshops. Over the past two years, they have held four workshops, hosting over 100 producer attendees.
In-field assessments: The project team has provided technical assistance to 53 properties (covering over 3,482 acres). This assistance includes over 60 irrigation evaluations where the project team measured irrigation system performance and DU. The most common issues identified across evaluations were related to lack of maintenance and operation errors including the following:
- flushing hoses
- excessive leaks
- plugged emitters, screens etc.
- running systems below recommended operating pressure
- significant pressure losses across filters
- improper scheduling
Preliminary Data and Discussion
Feedback from workshops was positive and the materials were well received by growers. The agenda was condensed into a four-hour workshop that accommodated growers’ schedules. Most attendees appreciated the format and provided feedback that more time was needed for a few of the topics such as nutrient management and completing the required reports. After presenting the workshop materials to partner organizations, Farm Bureaus and Resource Conservation Districts (RCDs) showed interest in providing similar trainings to growers from Madera to Sacramento, demonstrating the need for these educational opportunities.
Despite the need for increased knowledge and execution of regular maintenance, growers did not report this as a high priority. The second most common issue observed in the field was that irrigations were not conducted according to soil type, which in most cases resulted in excess irrigation. Future educational materials must show a stronger connection between the agronomic reasons for maintenance and irrigation scheduling. Thus far, only one of the evaluated properties declined additional technical assistance. This demonstrates that the growers find value in the information the field assessments provide.
Work Plan through 2021
Based on the findings from the first two years, the next round of technical assistance will focus on the soil aspects of the report and highlighting the connection between irrigation scheduling and nutrient management. The final report will include a detailed analysis tying nutrient application, irrigation scheduling and soil management together and showing the costs associated with management decisions. Additionally, the next round of trainings and outreach will target Certified Agricultural Irrigation Specialists (CAIS), Pest Control Advisors (PCAs) and CCAs, since growers and landowners identified those as the primary source of on-farm management decisions. Due to COVID-19 impacts, the Modesto Junior College lab training for 2020 is cancelled, and an online format may not offer the same quality of information due to the hands-on aspects of the training. The project leader is working on other options including hosting the training at alternate locations. Irrigation workshops for the fall season are still scheduled. The introductory workshops can be moved to an online format, but the more advanced trainings will need to be adjusted if social distancing restriction continue at the current level. There are 19 irrigation evaluations planned for the remainder of the 2020 irrigation season, and the remaining 19 will be held in 2021.