Farmers across California are working on ways to use water more wisely and more efficiently. These water conservation practices hold incredible potential for reducing farmer’s use of increasingly expensive and precious water resources.
VIDEO CASE STUDIES
The Water Stewardship Project video case studies and curriculum feature grower case studies that represent a variety of agricultural systems and practices. Water stewardship is not one-size-fits-all! Farmers are innovators who know their land and many farmers have created place-based solutions that work for their unique conditions. From low-tech to high-tech, farmers can benefit from each other’s ingenuity, adapt innovations to their own systems, and learn from each other.
Each farm encounters its own water conservation challenges. These six case studies from Northern California are just some of the solutions that farmers, businesses, and others have offered from their own experiences. There is tremendous value in farmers learning from one another.
Ponds can be filled by rainfall and can be beneficial to irrigation water supply security on the farm. Ponds are commonly sited at a natural low point in the landscape to also collect runoff water. Ponds can be lined or un-lined.
Lindencroft Farm captures rainwater in farm ponds and uses these man-made reservoirs to ensure that they have a secure supply of irrigation water for their specialty crops, especially during the end of the dry season when their well output decreases.
At Lindencroft Farm, Linda and Steven Butler use drip irrigation on the two acres that they farm, pulling primarily from a well that, according to Steven, “has maybe enough capacity for the farm and nothing to spare.” To ensure that there is always ample water, they put in a 250,000 gallon plastic-lined pond. This pond usually fills up with the first rain of the season and provides them with about “one year’s worth of irrigation insurance.”
The Butlers also have a second pond that handles the run off from the first. The ponds receive water from their produce wash station, but are filled primarily from rainwater and by rain run-off from the buildings on their property. The plastic liners for the ponds are about $6,000 each, but the rental of the excavator was the biggest expense—about $10,000, and Steven adds, “if you can avoid that cost, you can save a lot of money”.
A half-horsepower submersible pump is set-up to send the water up a hill to several 5,000 gallon holding tanks. Steven can control the flow of water from the pump house. The plumbing for this system is “very straightforward,” utilizing components that just about every farmer would be familiar with, such as PVC piping.
Steven says, “the one thing I would do differently is put in an automatic, or semi-automatic backwashing filter.” The ponds themselves need virtually zero maintenance, but the filters can get clogged easily. Without the automatic type, it is manual labor that does this easily avoidable job.
Ecological sustainability and good systems planning is evident on Lindencroft Farm by their photovoltaic panels, farm ponds and efficient irrigation systems. Steven reflects that Ben Lomond is a good place to be a farmer and only wishes that he had gotten into agriculture sooner!
Dry farming refers to crop cultivation where the residual moisture in the soil is used instead of irrigation. This is usually done in a region that receives twenty inches or more of annual rainfall. Dry farming works to conserve soil moisture during long dry periods primarily through a system of tillage, surface protection, and the use of drought-resistant varieties. Dry farming is more than the absence of irrigation—the soil, type of crop, regional rainfall, and types of tools must be considered.
Joe Curry, farmer and founding member of Molino Creek Farm Collective, uses a water efficient method of raising crops—dry farming—which does not utilize irrigation at all, but instead manages the field’s soil moisture prior to planting. The dry farming method saves on water and produces a smaller, more nutritious and flavor-rich tomato to be sold at market.
Molino Creek Farm Collective has been dry farming tomatoes for over thirty years. Joe Curry and the Farm Collective began dry farming because they “didn’t have much water.” No irrigation is used once the seedlings are in the field, which makes dry farming a great method for farmers with little access to water.
“Dry farming starts with managing the soil moisture,” says Joe. Seedlings are grown in the greenhouse as usual, while the soil in the field is being developed to sustain tomato starts. The seedlings are taken out of the greenhouse to harden off and are soon transplanted to the field. The soil is developed so that “what fell as rain [will] stay where it is until a tomato root gets to it”. The plants in field do not get their moisture from above, but rather from below—their roots must burrow down to grab the water stored in the soil six to twelve inches below the surface.
Joe tells us that “dry farming doesn’t come without its price”: the tomatoes are under a bit of stress from having to work for their water, so the resulting product is smaller in size than an irrigated tomato. They are also, however, more nutrient-rich and more flavorful than normal tomatoes, some would argue.
Dry farming has benefited the members of Molino Creek Collective by giving them a niche market before many other people were involved in dry farming tomatoes. Joe Curry describes one highlight of his career working the fields as “being able to sell food directly to the people who are going to eat it” as “an honor and a privilege.”
Soil tensiometers can read the soil moisture content at the root zone and can tell a grower how much irrigation is needed for that crop on that day. By monitoring the soil moisture, farmers can more precisely irrigate their crops.
Farm Manager Frank Estrada employs precision irrigation practices which Reiter Berry Farms has helped to pioneer with the Hortau company. This system is monitored through the Wireless Irrigation Network (WIN), a pilot project of the Pajaro Valley Community Water Dialogue.
Reiter Berry Farms has been certified organic by CCOF for fifteen years. They grow all types of berries but focus on strawberries, which take up 370 acres on eleven farms sold directly to Driscoll’s Berries. Reiter has worked with Hortau technology, a tension-based irrigation monitoring system, to pioneer this method for monitoring their water use. Over the past three years, through this cutting-edge technology, they have cut water usage by an average of thirty percent.
The system works with in-field probes that read water tension in soil. “Soil tension measures how hard a plant has to work to pull the water molecule away from the soil particle,” says Jeremy Otto, the manufacturer’s representative for Hortau’s West Coast operations.
The wireless field probes then send tension diagnostics to the base station through cell phone networks, and the farmer uses a wireless device to monitor irrigation needs. This allows the farmer to access the information remotely in real time, and to use these precise measurements for their irrigation schedules.
To implement the system, fields are mapped to decide probe and base station locations. Then the probes and base station are installed, including the probes which are buried at whatever depth the farmer wants to monitor. Reiter’s Frank Estrada says “once everything is online it’s as easy as having your laptop or cell phone, logging onto the network and checking your probes.” Reiter has nine fields with nine probes.
The Wireless Irrigation Network (WIN) is a pilot project of Pajaro Valley Community Water Dialogue that alloweds everyone to spend less on the install of these systems by sharing the cost. Probes are generally $800 each plus $7,100 for a base station and $197 per month for service, but in the Pajaro Valley, it is $150/month to join the WIN project. WIN offers a network of base stations providing broad coverage. When farmers buy into the WIN network, they avoid the initial base station cost. The Pajaro Valley aquifer has been in overdraft since about 1950 according to Kelley Bell of Driscoll’s Berries. Bringing precision to the equation of farming in this region has started to create a ripple of positive change to the aquifer management issues in the region.
RAINWATER CATCHMENT & WATER RECYCLING
Rainwater catchment is the act of collecting water before it reaches an aquifer. Rainwater can be collected off of a rooftop or in a natural drainage area. The water can be held in a tank or cistern to be used for any number of uses the farmer may require. Water recycling can be implemented in different ways: you can recycle municipal water, agricultural wastewater, or gray water. The California Water Recycling Criteria allow the use of recycled wastewater for irrigation of all types of food crops. The greatest hurdle to the use of recycled water is distance from the water source, so having on-site agricultural wastewater recycling may be very preferable.
Owner Dee Harley captures and recycles rainwater as well as water from the dairy and creamery. These efforts save Harley Farms Goat Dairy 40,000 gallons of water per year and allow for the development of specialty crop production for their on-farm dinners and other events.
Harley Farms Goat Dairy serves as a great model for on-farm rainwater catchment and water recycling practices for a variety of agricultural operations. Owner Dee Harley calls water “liquid gold” and has a deep commitment to the sustainability of the farm. This is clear through her careful attention to water use and reuse. The dairy, creamery, and gardens are on site, and so are the two hundred alpine goats from whom the cheese is made.
“To run a dairy operation, it takes quite a lot of water,” says Dee. They’ve installed large water storage tanks to capture rainwater coming off of the metal roof of the milking barn. That captured rainwater travels directly to two 5,000-gallon storage tanks through a PVC gutter system. From there, the water is piped to thirteen different troughs for the goats to drink. The addition of the rainwater catchment system has enabled Dee to add a garden. That garden has become a place to grow specialty crops, including edible flowers, herbs, and vegetables for the farm dinners, which increases the ecological sustainability and profitability of the farm.
Harley Farms recycles its water by capturing all of the water that has already been used to clean the milking parlor, pasteurizer, and creamery and then spreading it out over the pastures as a form of irrigation. Besides an annual cleaning of the roof and drainpipes for the rainwater barrels—and some maintenance of the filtration system—the whole rainwater catchment and water recycling system takes “very little maintenance, really,” according to Dee.
Dee was able to fund these complimentary water stewardship projects through the EQIP cost-share program in partnership with the NRCS, and also through her own financing. She sees that it has been “an important partnership” because “there are always new and interesting grants and available funding for people.” Her goal was to avoid drawing any water from the creek for her farm operations. These types of systems are helping farmers innovate and more intentionally use our precious water resources. Dee sees this as evidence of “thinking to the future.”
Keyline Design is a permaculture practice where topographic features are linked to the flow of water over and through a landscape. The technique was developed by P.A. Yeomans and the practice requires the use of a Yeomans plow (also known as a Keyline plow). This practice allows water to more effectively infiltrate the landscape and to be channeled into keypoint ponds.
Erik and Doniga Markegard of Markegard Family Grass-Fed have a 1,000 acre home ranch as well as six ranches leased for livestock. They produce grass-fed beef, grass-fed lamb, pastured pork, and pasture raised laying hens. They are excited to share how they came to promote Keyline Design strategies on their farm.
Markegard Family Grass-Fed serves as a great model for the Keyline Design to increase the sustainability of a farm. Keyline Design is a permaculture practice which slows down the movement of water over and through the land to increase absorption and percolation into the soil and water table. Doniga explains that “Keyline Design is a whole systems approach to water and land management.”
The Markegards have chosen to use this system because when Erik first came to the property, he noticed there was “a lot of surface water” on the property and “thought it would make a lot of sense to use gravity to bring water” to a central collection point. This approach lent itself perfectly to Keyline Design, because in permaculture design terms, Erik had discovered a Keypoint: a low point where rainwater naturally collects.
The water travels from the Keypoint through a Keyline channel, which is a man-made line ripped into the land by a tractor with a special Keyline/Yoeman’s plow. The Keyline allows water to go deeper into the soil and move where it is directed. Doniga notes that the water “runs very slow” through the Keyline. They have used bulldozers, excavators, and “even a pick and a shovel” to implement this design technique.
Markegard Family Grass-Fed uses this passive irrigation technique because it builds soil, increases forage production, saves electricity, and reduces runoff. Erik notes that they “use the Keyline Design instead of irrigating.” This is just one way that they are closing the loop and increasing the ecological sustainability of their ranch.
WATER REUSE & METHANE DIGESTION
A tarp-covered pond can be used to capture methane gas as it escapes from manure, organic matter, and other sources. Dairy wastewater can be reused through custom water reclamation systems as well as a methane digestion system where energy is captured.
Straus Family Creamery President Albert Straus has tailored his farm’s energy production system. Methane digestion uses recycled water and methane captured from cow manure in this system. The methane produced from the breakdown of manure is turned into enough energy to run their whole dairy, power Albert’s car, and put power back onto the grid. Now that is some powerful poop!
Straus Family Creamery serves as a great example for low-impact energy production and water reuse. Straus’ President Albert Straus says they are “always trying to see how we can improve—from energy production, to minimizing our water usage.” This idea is exemplified by their methane digester, which utilizes cow manure from their herds to create all of the energy that their operation needs.
The creamery reuses “about ninety-four percent” of the 3,000 to 3,500 gallons of water used per day to process the milk. Water is first used to clean equipment, then to flush the barns, and finally sent out to irrigate the fields. This is the beginning of the “closed loop system” of the energy produced by the methane digester. It begins with the reuse of water and results in energy.
Once the barns have been flushed, the liquid waste is sent to the methane digester, which is a “covered lagoon”—a large pond covered by a large floating tarp. The liquid waste goes through anaerobic digestion and releases methane gas that rises up and is caught by the tarp. The methane is then “piped into the generator, and used as fuel in the generator.” It produces electricity and heats water. The methane digester produces enough energy to run the farm, power Albert’s electric car and put energy back on to the grid!
This system was expensive to implement, but “government and non-profits can help offset the initial cost and get these systems in place.” Straus found that his contribution to the system’s installation was paid off in about “four to five years.”
There are many benefits to the methane digester system, possibly the most important of which is that it keeps methane gas—“a greenhouse gas that twenty-three times more detrimental than carbon monoxide”—out of the atmosphere. It also keeps odors down and saves a lot of money on energy bills.
As a company, Straus Family Creamery’s mission has been to “sustain family farms.” As long as the focus is kept on small family farms and animal welfare, Albert believes that they can.
In addition to the Water Stewardship Project, the Ecological Farming Association is helping to educate farmers about on-farm water stewardship practices through workshop sessions at the annual EcoFarm Conference and regional field day presentations. Conservation organizations like the National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), Resource Conservation Districts (RCDs), the University of California Cooperative Extension, and Ag Innovations California Roundtable on Water and the Food Supply are leading projects that link farmers with each other, landowners, and the community. The RCD and NRCS and UC Coop Extension provide support to design and adopt water management techniques. The Roundtable for Water and the Food Supply provides an online Ag Water Resources Center which may be very useful to farmers and others who are looking to learn more about water stewardship.
“Agricultural water stewardship – the careful and responsible management and use of available water resources – can help insulate farmers against future uncertainty in water supply, bolster food security, enhance environmental quality, and contribute to overall appropriate water management in California.” (from Ensuring a Secure Future for California Agriculture, June 2008).