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Going Wireless | Spring 2007 Out Here Magazine

Wireless crop monitoring allows growers to get, via computers, up-to-the-minute data on the water and fertilizers in their fields.

New technology gives farmers a glimpse underground

By David Frey

Photography courtesy of PureSense

New technologies are giving farmers a view of their crops they've had a hard time getting before: a glimpse underground.

Using wireless technologies, growers are able to get up-to-the-minute information on how, when, and where crops are soaking up irrigation water.

For farmers who rely on irrigation, the systems can mean big payoffs, not only in water savings but in chemicals and fertilizers, too. They can also mean stronger, healthier crops, with better harvests that can more than pay for the systems.

"It's like any other business. The more data you have, the better your business is," says David Zoldoske, director of the Center for Irrigation Technology at California State University at Fresno.

Using wireless technologies — the same technologies that let you make cell phone calls or connect to the Internet at a coffee shop — a growing batch of systems are linking farmers to their crops' soil.

Sensors in the ground monitor soil moisture and root activity several feet underground. They pick up where in the root zone the plants are absorbing water and beam the information, in real time, to a website where farmers can log on and monitor what their plants are doing.

The information lets farmers figure out how much to water, or not water, and how their plants are absorbing the moisture. Other wireless systems monitor weather, so farmers can keep an eye out for conditions that could lead to disease or mildew.

"The advantage of it is, you can just get on the Internet and check everything, whenever you want," says Kevin Cantrelle, director of vineyard operations for The Wine Group. The California company is the world's third-largest winery, with such popular brands as Franzia and Corbett Canyon.

Grapes particularly benefit from the systems, Cantrelle says, because tweaking irrigation can have a big impact. For a more robust crop, growers crank up the water. For a more flavorful grape, they pinch it back. But anybody who irrigates, not just big growers, could reap the benefits, Cantrelle says.

"At the end of the day, unless you can measure, you can't manage," says Matt Angell, vice president for sales for the wireless crop monitoring system PureSense.

When farmers know how their crops are absorbing water, they can avoid over-irrigating. That can also mean savings on fertilizer, Angell says, because they're washing less away.

Better watering can mean healthier crops, too, he says, and that means farmers need fewer chemicals to fend off pests.

"Less stress on the vineyards have caused us to reduce our pesticide use," Cantrelle says. His company started installing wireless sensors in 2005. It added more last season and plans even more this year on its 6,500 acres of vineyards

The increase in production has more than paid for the system, he says.

Farmers are often hesitant about new technology, Angell says, but a little information can make a big difference in staying competitive.

"These guys have a lot of issues coming at them," he says. "Not just growing the crop, but global competition. Anything they can get to be on top of the game is just critical for their survival."

David Frey writes in Carbondale, CO.