Farming in California’s Central Valley has many advantages. Controlling the timing of applied water to thirsty crops is one benefit which growers in other areas of the world would like to have, versus relying on unreliable rainfall.
There are disadvantages too.
“When the snowpack in the Sierra is good, we usually get most of what we need without having to turn on any pumps,” says Paul Newton, owner, Newton Farms, Stratford, Calif.
“This year we are trying to optimize our crop production given a decrease in our allocation of water from several different sources. This is a real challenge for us,” Newton said.
Newton Farms produces alfalfa, cantaloupe, corn, cotton, garbanzo beans, onions, tomatoes, triticale, wheat, and pistachios on about 7,000 acres in southern San Joaquin County.
The fourth-generation business is owned and operated by the Newton family which includes managers John, Paul, Michael, and Pat. These seasoned growers have lived through times of too much water and, like this year, those that are considerably short based on available land and water requirements.
The company has access to multiple sources of water, including six different irrigation districts and 10 groundwater wells.
While the ditch water is high quality or “sweet,” as they say, the water pumped from aquifers is high in dreaded salt. Blending these two produces a more desirable product for the crops but also adds another wrinkle to the challenge of water management.
“We used a spreadsheet and handwritten records years ago,” John Newton said. “Then we had a program designed for use in the field on one of the first pen-based computers ever sold.”
The field units did not function effectively so the program was run on the office computer which worked well. This lasted almost 20 years.
A few years ago, the Newton family looked for a product which could use a smart phone or tablet computer. Tom Horsley, who developed the first computer software application for the Newton’s, demonstrated his new software LandView.
“After some input from us and code writing on Tom’s part, we came up with a solution that works much better than anything we’ve ever had,” John said.
Water management details
Here is how it works.
A water budget is set up for each crop and field before the season begins. Knowing the water allocation from each source and the historical crop needs for the various crops, a plan is developed to ensure sufficient water availability for the coming year.
An irrigation supervisor, equipped with a smart phone, collects the necessary water data - ditch and pump water - and updates the ‘water bank’ in real time for a manager to review.
Everyone has quick and easy access to irrigation historical events, along with a summary of how much was applied and how much water is left in the ‘bank’ to complete each field.
“The entire system is dynamic and complex,” said Michael. “We adjust it according to the weather, but for the most part we know in advance whether we will be able to harvest our crops without coming up short of water.”
The tool allows Newton to monitor water usage in real time and deal with any possible shortfalls before getting into a bind.
“It is simple but also has a lot of flexibility that allows us to manage our business the way we like to operate and not the other way around,” Michael said.
LandView provided a field data collection tool. Since the application runs in a computer ‘cloud,’ the growers can quickly ensure that everyone is correctly recording data and does not get behind.
“This year we planted 550 fewer acres of cotton due to our analysis of maximizing our planted acres given our limited water availability,” said Paul Newton. “We are confident this is the right amount to lay fallow.”
What would happen if only 300 acres were kept fallow or if 750 acres were set aside?
“At the end of the season, fields could suffer from the shortfall and we could possibly lose the crop, or we would have had leftover water that could have generated more yield,” Paul said. “This would cost us a lot of money either way.”
John Newton is convinced that information technology makes the family more profitable.
“Water is a unique crop input - unlike nutrients, seed, or pesticide,” Newton said. “It is a limited resource where we can’t just go out and purchase more.”
Newton added, “Effectively managing our water to maximize our production means we have a shot at staying in business for a few more generations to come.”
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