By Craige Mackenzie: Methven, New Zealand
As I sat in a board room in Minneapolis, I used a break in my meeting to check the moisture of the soil on my farm in New Zealand. I didn’t walk into a field and dig a hole or stick a meter into the dirt. Instead, I pulled out my phone, looked at its screen, and saw what my sensors were saying.
Fellow Global Farmer Network board member V Ravichandran was checking his phone as well. Ravi was looking at photos of his cotton crop that had just been sent to him from his farm in Tamil Nadu India. Ravi checked the photos and sent a reply e-mail to India with his observation and actions required.
This is what modern agriculture looks like: It’s global, it’s high-tech, and it’s all about sustainable conservation.
On my farm, we grow a wide range of crops: carrot seeds, radish seeds, chicory, wheat, and even the species of ryegrass that covers American baseball fields. Some of our products stay at home but most of it leaves our island. The entirety of our carrot-seed crop, for example, ships to Holland for worldwide distribution.
Despite this diversity, the crops we plant all depend on the same set of natural resources, from sunlight in the sky to nutrients in the ground. Our most precious resource, however, may be water. Although it varies by region, about 70 percent of the world’s freshwater is invested in agriculture—and without its careful management, we can’t supply the planet with the food it needs.
So every drop counts.
I check my soil’s moisture levels every day, examining the data from probes which have sensors every 10 cm down the length of the probe. This allows me to keep track of the health of both shallow-rooted crops and long-season crops in a variety of conditions.
Every day and each section of farmland is different. Rain comes and goes. Some acres hold more water than others. Slope and elevation play an important role. With GPS and electromagnetic technology, we produce detailed maps of our soil.
We gather all of this information and study it, learning which areas need water and which don’t. Then we plan our water use, making sure that nothing goes to waste.
Rather than drenching whole fields, like a water sprinkler that runs for hours on a suburban backyard, we customize our delivery. Our pivot-irrigation system sends exactly the right amount of water to just the right place, spreading the water like dots on a carpet.
Now we’re also looking at our fertilizer use with sensors that detect nitrates, potassium, and phosphorus.
We started our aggressive resource management eight years ago, and our high-tech irrigation began six years ago. As time marches on, and we generate more data on what our soil wants and our crops need, we’ll get better and better at conservation.
Our goal is for no water to leave the root zones of our crops. We don’t want any of our water to quench the thirst of weeds, run off our land, or evaporate into the air or our waterways
If moisture levels drop too low, my farm lets me know with an emergency text or email. This allows us solve problems as they emerge, rather than after it’s too late.
All of this helps us grow more food. One of the major benefits of precision irrigation is that our crops mature at the same time, adding to the quality of what we grow as well as to our yield. We’re seeing nice, neat results.
We continue to look for new ways to adapt technology to agriculture. We’ve even started launching drones, flying them over our fields to look at the health of our plants from above. From my tablet, I can tell them where to fly and from what angle to take their pictures. These views give me another way to assess how they’re doing.
Just a few years ago, drones were too expensive and their cameras weren’t good enough for agricultural use. Recently, however, they’ve come down in price and they’ve also improved, with affordable high-definition cameras. I’m still getting used to them—but pretty soon, they’ll become ordinary tools of farming, just like tractors.
Farming may be one of the world’s oldest professions, but we’re taking it into the 21st century, as we meet the twin demands of growing more food and conserving our limited resources.
Craige Mackenzie uses precision agriculture tools and techniques to produce specialty seed crops including wheat, ryegrass, fescue, hybrid carrots, hybrid radish, pak choi, spinach and chicory along with a dairy operation in Methven, New Zealand. Craige serves as a board member of the Global Farmer Network where this column first appears (www.globalfarmernetwork.org).