Making the Most of Each Precious Drop

So much of farming is being ready to respond to factors out of our control. From massive weather events to underground gophers chewing on tree roots, a farmer can only live so much in the future when the demands of the present are great. But one aspect of regenerative farming that is so powerful is that long-view. In keeping our eye on the continual well-being of our soil, ecosystem, and workforce, we set ourselves up for greater resilience in the face of the often unpredictable challenges of the future.

Drought, for instance, is a harsh reality. This year, we faced our water being shut off altogether. Where large farms can purchase water, drill deeper wells, or change crops—small family farms don’t have the option to pivot and have to make tough decisions about what they can afford to lose. These decisions not only affect the current season, but the future of their entire operation. That’s why we think hard about our water use and try to prepare our soil and trees to make the most of every drop.

Conserve and absorb

Microsprinkler spraying just around the rootzone of the peach tree

Our micro-sprinkler irrigation system is an efficient way to apply just enough water to the trees right where they need it—on the rootzone. But we need to think beyond just conserving water. We want to make sure our soil can absorb as much of that water as possible. Agriculture, particularly conventional agriculture, experiences a huge problem with run-off. Run-off happens when soil is too degraded or compacted to absorb rain or irrigation water, so the topsoil washes away into rivers and deltas along with whatever non-organic material a conventional farm might also be using. Run-off is a huge polluter of our clean water resources. When water runs off, clearly it’s not being used efficiently by the target crop. This often results in farmers using more and more water to give crops what they need.

We want to keep that water in the ground—especially when we finally get rain like we did this winter! That means helping the soil system function like it’s supposed to: letting microorganisms flourish by applying compost, planting ground cover, and not tilling the ground. (Didi Pershouse has a great blog about what’s at work under our feet that creates that sponge-like soil, if you want to read more.) When we let these natural systems self-regulate and thrive, soil has the necessary glue and structure to act like a sponge rather than a dry heap. Try pouring water on a pile of flour and watch the droplets build up on top and roll off the sides, pooling in mucky puddles. That’s how degraded soil functions. On the other hand, pour some water onto a piece of bread and watch it absorb so much more. (We can thank Didi Pershouse for this metaphor!) 

Measure and adapt

The other piece of responsible conservation irrigation is understanding just how much water an individual orchard is absorbing and how much more or less it needs—then adapting! Part of this is a farmer’s intuition. We’re lucky to also be aided by moisture sensor technology! This technology is new to us. We’ve just collected our first season of data and are familiarizing ourselves with the data dashboards. Soon, we’ll be able to see how much water the ground is absorbing in real time.

Screenshot of our online data dashboard showing water content in the soil by orchard

Screenshot of our data dashboard showing water content in the soil by orchard

The sensors measure moisture levels at different depths (up to 4ft deep!) in different orchards. The sensors measure other things too, like weather data and chill hours. Any given orchard might have a unique soil type and farming history—both of which affect water absorption, among many other factors. So with this technology, we can see just how wet the ground is in the root zone. Based on that data, we may not have to irrigate as long as we planned or at all.

“You can’t see these deeper moisture levels from above-ground,” says Farming Assistant Rachel Sullivan, who monitors the sensors. “With one season of data under our belts, we understand the tool now and will be able to use it real-time next summer to make irrigation decisions. We're excited!”

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