LAKELAND – New soil moisture probes are expected to save water for irrigation, keep nutrients out of groundwater and save money for farmers.
The Nature Conservancy and researchers at the University of Florida with funding from Mosaic Company, Inc. have started monitoring water levels in soils for Southwest Florida farmers who will be able to access the data via a digital dashboard.
“The whole key is the soil moisture probes are a great tool for the ag industry to manage their irrigation which in return manages their nutrients because you are not pushing the nutrients out of the root zone of the plants,” according to David Royal, Florida Nutrient Stewardship Project manager.
‘No sleep for farmers’: Polk growers prepare crops to weather freezing temperatures
There are currently 83 soil probes across the state in fields growing crops such as green peppers and corn in a soil moisture data collecting network, according to Vivek Sharma, assistant professor of agricultural and biological engineering at the University of Florida.
The Nutrient Stewardship program – or 4R Nutrient Stewardship program – serves as a guide for farmers trying to keep fertilizers on and within their fields.
The goal is for farmers to partner with TNC to learn how to use the probes and implement best practices for nutrient stewardship.
Royal explained, with the right amount of water, “you’re holding them up there where the plants can get all the nutrients out,” he said.
There are secondary benefits to the program.
“We know water quality is a major factor here in the state of Florida and this is just a tool to help protect the water quality on the farm,” Royal said.
Having data about how much moisture is contained in soils at various locations will help reduce water consumption for irrigation and stop the flushing out of nutrients into watersheds, said a recent press release from The Nature Conservancy.
This will save farmers money on fertilizer and stop nutrients from entering Florida waterways where it could harm ecosystems, the release said.
Soil monitoring stations in Polk County and Southwest Florida
The Conservancy and the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Science, are setting up soil monitoring stations throughout Southwest Florida, including one coming soon to Polk County.
Jackie Barron, spokeswoman for Mosaic, said the funding reflects the company’s “long history working with organizations like TNC as well as farmers across the country on nutrient stewardship.”
“In the last couple of years, Mosaic has contributed upwards of a million dollars in various support to the Florida Chapter of TNC but not all of that was specific to the soil probes project,” she said. “That work is newer and largely rooted in Florida.”
“The collaboration between TNC and UF has helped accelerate the work to include more farmers and thus not only collect but track more data,” she said. “The goal of course is to better understand nutrient loss, adjust applications, and improve farmer profitability ultimately helping both farmers and the environment.”
In Florida and around the world, TNC is working with food producers to apply science, practice and policy to develop viable solutions for sustainable food production, the Conservancy release said.
16 of the soil probes being installed in Florida
This means maximizing the impact of every drop of water and fertilizer, to support healthy waters for wildlife and people, the group said. The Conservancy has purchased 16 of the soil probes being installed statewide, which will be used in an education program for farmers in Hardee, Desoto, Manatee and Hillsborough counties, in addition to Polk County.
The new technology tracks soil moisture and transmits the data to a digital dashboard, the release said. Farmers can see what’s happening under the soil in real time, informing their decisions about when and how to apply more water and fertilizer to their fields.
“By managing irrigation, we’re also managing nutrients in the soil, because farmers aren’t applying water that will push nutrients beyond the rootzone,” Royal says. That allows growers to optimize their fertilizer use, resulting in cost savings for them and fewer nutrients draining into groundwater.
Barron said Mosaic has been involved in similar programs across the country.
“The collaboration between TNC and UF has helped accelerate the work to include more farmers and thus not only collect but track more data,” she said. “The goal of course is to better understand nutrient loss, adjust applications, and improve farmer profitability, ultimately helping both farmers and the environment.”
“As to agriculture on reclaimed land, that is a completely separate topic,” Barron said, adding this program is unrelated to Mosaic’s mining and reclamation operations.
Another benefit of this technology is that it allows farmers to monitor soil salinity in addition to soil moisture. By tracking salinity, farmers can see when nutrients are present in the rootzone, Royal said.
Extension agents with UF/IFAS in north Florida recently experimented with soil probes, with tremendous results, the Conservancy said. One farm reduced its water use by 290 million gallons for a single year’s corn crop.
Professor Sharma started his research for this project in 2018 in the Suwanee River Basin in North Florida. He said one large grower in the region had reduced his water expenses by $45,000.
Florida’s sandy soils in many regions will allow nitrogen, an ingredient in fertilizer, to flow beyond the roots of crops and migrate deep into the ground where it is not needed and can pollute the land and water, which can have a negative environmental impact on natural springs.
“Water quality is a concern in Florida and agriculture produces pollution” when nutrients are not applied correctly, or crops are overwatered, he said. The longer the fertilizer remains near the roots the better the grower’s crops.
After witnessing that success of Sharma’s initial studies, the Conservancy and UF/IFAS teamed up to test the technology in the southwest region. Both farmers and extension agents have access to the digital dashboards, which reveals what is happening underground at farms.
The extension agents and The Conservancy are working with the growers to help them interpret the data with training.
Citrus extension agent, Chris Oswalt and small farms extension agent, Luis Rodriguez, have both participated in meetings with Royal and the team is actively working on identifying two local producers who will pilot the probes, said Nicole Walker, associate director, UF/IFAS Extension Southwest District, and director, UF/IFAS Extension Polk County.
“Once farmers are comfortable with the technology — and have seen how it can benefit them — they are likely to invest in their own probe systems,” the Conservancy said.
Agriculture is one of the most resource-intensive industries on the planet, the Conservancy said. Modern farmers must balance the demands of agricultural production with growing conservation concerns.
Florida’s agricultural industry provides billions of dollars in cash crops and commodities exports each year, and employs 1.5 million people, Royal said. The are 9.45 million acres of farm land in Florida.
“Farmers want to do what’s best to protect the land and their agricultural legacy,” he said. “Sustainable agriculture will always be a work in progress, and the industry is very receptive to these new tools and technologies.”
Paul Nutcher covers business and industry for The Ledger. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.