Record-setting drought across the U.S. in recent years has pushed everyone to look for new ways to save water. So while nature and beer don’t always go together, it was natural for The Nature Conservancy (TNC) to join forces with America’s beer brewers to change how farmer irrigate their crops. For the non-profit, conserving America’s rivers meant growing America’s barley, one of the primary ingredients in one of our favorite cold beverages, with less water.
The key is precision farming: the convergence of digital technology that allows farmers to apply just the right amount of fertilizer and water on their fields. Humans have practiced a rather crude form of agriculture for millennia: we douse fields to give them as much water and fertilizer as we think they need. Yet field conditions may differ drastically within a few feet.
Now measuring and application technologies from automatic sprayers to satellites are so cheap and effective, farmers can use precisely the right amount of resources on every square foot of a field. Experimental projects are even testing how to dispatch farm drones (crop-spying quadcopters for example) that measure everything from reflectivity to water loss to optimize the efficiency of a farm’s operations.
"From our perspective: what’s good for the farmer is good for the environment," writes Lisa Park, a spokeswoman for TNC. The Conservancy first started working with farmers in Georgia while trying to protect freshwater mussels in the Flint River. It found that if it could divert water from fields, more remained for threatened wildlife. "What we’re doing in Georgia and Idaho is catching on around the world," says Park. "Farmers are now making the switch using science and technology to supply the goods we need."
In Idaho, the nonprofit is collaborating with MillerCoors to support farmers who upgrade their irrigation systems to new precision agriculture systems. Farmers have begun installing new sprinklers, nozzles, and computer-controlled irrigation covering thousands of acres that conserve millions of gallons of water each day. "As a brewer, we know that the area we can have the biggest impact in reducing water usage is within the agricultural supply chain," wrote Kim Marotta, MillerCoors director of sustainability. "The learnings and savings in the first two years of the [pilot project] farms were significant—a cumulative 270 million gallons of water reduced."
Farmers and the environment profit. Yet the central technology in this effort—variable rate irrigation (VRI)—wasn’t a commercial endeavor delivered directly to farmers clamoring for the technology. It took almost a decade of academic research before an unusual alliance of NGOs and local and state government agencies sought to commercialize the VRI technology in the private sector. A successful grant-funded pilot project caught on among other farmers who are now applying it across acres in a dozen states, while major agricultural equipment manufacturers are promoting it.
Change in agriculture comes slow. Yet the promise of precision agriculture is to find the right mix of profit and environmental protection. "We are also seeing a changing of the guard," writes TNC’s manager of Idaho’s Silver Creek Preserve. "The old timers are retiring (or dying) and the new farmers are looking for new and better ways of doing things."