UC Agriculture and Natural Resources will receive $865,000 to help farmers in the Colorado River basin and the Salinas Valley integrate digital tools and artificial intelligence into their growing systems. The funds are part of a $10 million Sustainable Agricultural Systems grant from the USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture to improve the sustainability of the nation's food supply.
The intensive agricultural industry of the Colorado River basin – which includes the Palo Verde, Coachella and Imperial valleys in California; the Yuma Valley and other areas, such as Wellton-Mohawk Valley in Arizona – produces vegetables in the winter that are shipped across the country. Salinas Valley farms produce vegetables in the summer for markets throughout the nation.
“Vegetables are an essential part of a healthful diet. With this grant, NIFA is recognizing the role that California, Arizona and Colorado play in growing nutritious food for Americans,” said Khaled Bali, UC Cooperative Extension irrigation specialist. “The sustainability of these production systems into the future, particularly in light of challenges like climate change, increased drought and limited access to surface and groundwater, will require sophisticated technology.”
U.S. agriculture industry professionals are world leaders in the use of technology, including automation, drip irrigation, sensors and drones. “What's new is how you can now integrate technology into making decisions,” said Bali, who is leading the digital agriculture education and outreach aspect of the grant.
Bali said new farming tools work like smart thermostats in homes, which have sensors throughout the house and learn family patterns to make conditions perfectly comfortable throughout the day and night.
On the farm, instead of applying the same amount of water and fertilizer over hundreds of acres, sensors, valves and digital management allow small sectors to get treatments based on soil type, size of plants, pest pressure, salinity and disease management.
“This project will lay the foundation for a long-term shift to highly automated mechanized farm management systems – with full implementation likely decades in the future,” Bali said. “The precise application of inputs in agriculture will save water, reduce the percolation of fertilizer below plant roots, reduce the need for manual labor in the industry, increase yields and decrease expenditures, enhancing the industry's economic viability.”
Field demonstrations, training sessions, videos and handouts will bridge the gap between ongoing farming practices and academic and industry state-of-the-art digital technology. These activities are expected to increase the productivity and competitiveness of major crop growers.
The new project will expand the usage of a smartphone and website app called CropManage, a system developed in 2011 by Michael Cahn, UC Cooperative Extension advisor in Monterey, Santa Cruz and San Benito counties. CropManage allows farmers in the Salinas Valley to input information about their crops and soil, and then automatically receive recommendations about irrigation and fertilization needs that take into account weather conditions reported by the California Irrigation Management Information System (CIMIS), a network of automated weather stations managed by the California Department of Water Resources.
Currently, CropManage makes about 2,000 recommendations to Salinas Valley farmers each month during the growing season. The new funding will allow for the expansion of CropManage to help farmers manage salinity.
“To minimize salt toxicity to the crop, farmers may need to apply water to leach salinity below the root zone. But we don't want to leach nitrates,” Cahn said. “We want to decouple these processes and do the leaching when there are lower nitrogen levels in the system. Determining timing and water amount is something we will build into CropManage.”
The grant will also provide funding for new training and outreach that will enable more farmers to use the CropManage app.
The overarching $10 million grant awarded to UC Riverside is led by professor Elia Scudiero, an expert in soil, plant and water relationships. He and a team of UC Riverside scientists will develop artificial intelligence data needed for smart farming systems with new statistical and algebraic models that find repeated and generalizable patterns.
Another key piece of the effort will be supplying the agriculture industry with the next generation of growers, managers and scientists. Funds from the NIFA grant will establish a Digital Agriculture Fellowship program to recruit more than 50 data, environmental or agricultural science students over the next five years to develop and learn the technology. Internships with key commercial partners are also a feature of the program.