Clemson irrigation specialist Jose Payero is installing weather stations and soil-moisture sensors at farms across South Carolina and developing the online platform that will allow farmers to use the collected data to conserve water and energy.
Payero received a $75,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to install weather stations at farms in each county of the state. He aims to arm farmers with data that will allow them to make more informed irrigation decisions based on rain forecasts, soil type and crop yield expectations. The sensors and weather stations connect wirelessly to transmitters that will send data to a password-protected website Payero is developing for farmer access. Data from the sensors also could be sent to an automated irrigation system Payero is developing that would activate if soil moisture dips below desired levels.
Over-irrigation can be costly and cause soil erosion, chemical runoff and nutrient leaching, while under-irrigation stresses crops and reduces yield. Periods of drought, meanwhile, have made water availability scarcer, while persuading more farmers to invest in irrigation systems, said Payero, who works at the University’s Edisto Research and Education Center (REC) in Blackville.“Water is one of our most important issues going forward,” he said. “The population is growing. The demand for food is rising. But we are not making more land, so we need to make our land more productive while protecting our water resources.
“It is not unreasonable to expect that society will continue to demand farmers produce more crops with less water, especially in areas where water resources are scarce and where competition is increasing between irrigation and alternative water users like environmental, municipal and industrial use,” Payero said. “Farmers will only be able to respond to this challenge if they are equipped with the knowledge and the tools to make better water management decisions.”
Bamberg County farmer Richard Rentz approached Payero at a field day in the fall at the Edisto REC to request installation of a weather station on his property. “Right now, we’re just shooting in the dark on our irrigation,” said Rentz, who irrigates roughly 150 acres of a 700-acre farm. “I’d like to save a little water, save a little power and save some money. It’s a significant expense.”
The Edisto REC is developing and demonstrating a variety of new technologies aimed at conserving water and other farm inputs, like fertilizers, to both increase crop yields and minimize the effect of production practices on the environment. These technologies include irrigation scheduling using weather data, irrigation automation, sensor-based irrigation, subsurface drip irrigation and variable-rate irrigation. Application of these technologies could save the state an estimated $7 million annually just in pumping costs while significantly reducing water application.
“Dr. Payero’s project is a critical piece of research for agriculture and water-use management. Water for irrigation is an extremely important component of South Carolina’s agriculture industry, especially in the eastern portion of the state,” said Jeffery Allen, director of the S.C. Water Resources Center. “Using these sensors and data-collection stations will help us understand how water moves through these systems and how farmers can best manage their crops now and into the future.”