If you’ve read the news recently, you’ve probably heard about the California drought. And while you might be rolling your eyes at yet another drought-related post, the good news is that there is good news! Drought is a serious problem, one that our own Organic Valley farmers out west are currently living. On top of that, 80% of the United States’ annual water usage can be attributed to agriculture. Luckily, farmers, scientists, and industry leaders have come up with some adaptations to this tricky situation. Here are just a few water-friendly innovations:

1. Irrigation Technologies

Drip irrigation is a more efficient way to water crops. Photo by U.S. Department of Agriculture

Irrigation inventions are thriving in California. Monitors can relay information to farmers about various pieces of information, including available soil moisture, leaks in the equipment, areas where water use can be reduced, and reminders of efficient times to run irrigation systems. Some monitors can even relay information through mobile applications. Other farmers are replacing central pivot irrigation with drip systems or systems that bring water closer to the soil, thus reducing the amount of water that evaporates before it even hits the ground.

2. High-Density Avocado Plantings

Avocados trees benefit from alternative spacing. Photo by McKay Savage

Avocados trees benefit from alternative spacing. Photo by McKay Savage

“We’ve been growing avocados wrong all these years, and we’re finally starting to figure it out,” University of California researcher Gary Bender commented in a recent National Public Radio story. “The idea is – what’s our maximum yield per acre so we can actually pay these water bills and keep these guys in business?”For years, farmers spaced avocado trees far from one another due to a belief that the trees could become crowded. Bender busted this myth when he reduced his trees’ spacing by half, resulting in a growing method that requires significantly less water and doubles avocado yield.

 

 

3. Water Efficient Feed

Sorghum is drought-tolerant. Photo by Cyndy Parr

Sorghum is drought-tolerant. Photo by Cyndy Parr

Some dairy and livestock farmers have made the decision to switch their cow’s diet from water-intensive soy and alfalfa to alternative sources of feed that require less water to grow, such as sorghum and small millets. According to one United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization study, some sources of residue (leftover parts of crops) can be used as feed. For example, tops of sugar beets or straw have a water footprint of virtually zero because it is often a byproduct that would normally be thrown out.

4. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles image fields. Photo by Mauricio Lima

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles image fields. Photo by Mauricio Lima

While the FAA hasn’t officially allowed the use of unmanned aerial vehicle (drones) yet , some innovative farmers are applying for an exemption to the rule. Satellite and aerial imagery can help farmers to better plan water usage. Images captured by drones flying over fields can show farmers which areas could use more or less watering. Drones also produce maps that farmers can use to efficiently plan new irrigation systems and avoid installing in areas that wouldn’t necessarily need more water.

5. Warm-Season Grass Pastures

University of California turfgrass scientist Jim Baird researches drought-tolerant grasses. Photo retrieved from  Los Angeles Times

University of California turfgrass scientist Jim Baird researches drought-tolerant grasses. Photo retrieved from Los Angeles Times

In response to the drought, farmers have also transitioned part or all of their pastures to drought-tolerant grasses. According to University of California turfgrass scientists, warm-season grasses (switchgrass and bluestems) require 20% less water than cool-season grasses (brome and fescue). Studies conducted by the Missouri Department of Conservation have found that yields, quality, and nutrition of warm-season grasses are comparable and just as suited for cattle grazing as other grasses.

The current drought affecting the western United States is incredibly serious, beating all past records and showing no sign of letting up. So we are encouraged to see farming innovations that accept this new reality and forge a new path forward.