California drought spurs technology on the farm

Source: Wall Street Journal

It has been two decades since Willie Hartman started making farm equipment that helps growers conserve water, but sales didn’t take off until the past four years. Credit goes, in part, to California’s worst drought in at least half a century. Farmers in the Golden State’s $45 billion agricultural economy are increasingly thirsty for ways to save water, prompting a burst in demand for tools and processes such as Hartman’s On Target Sprayer.

At a cost of $20,000 to $50,000 each, Hartman’s machines electrically charge mists of pesticides and plant nutrients in a way that causes them to stick to leaves more evenly, using about 80% less water than conventional chemical-spray rigs. Sales at his Progressive Grower Technologies Inc. are rising 30% a year, more than triple the rate four years ago, he said. “Everybody’s aware of water now,” Hartman added. “Everybody’s watching it.”

Farmers in the arid West long have sought to lower their costs, including for water. But it often has taken a back seat to pressing concerns about labor, energy and other expenses. Now a drought that has stretched for four years is heightening attention to water efficiency by California growers of crops, whether almonds, olives or peaches—and opening a new market opportunity for those peddling novel solutions and others whose products received little notice until now.

New technologies range from a nontoxic gel made by Moasis Inc. that, mixed into soil, stores and slowly releases water near roots, to companies using satellite and aerial imagery to help farmers better plan how to irrigate crops based on how sections of their fields are faring. A water-pump monitor made by PowWow Energy Inc. alerts farmers to leaks in irrigation equipment.

Their emergence underscores the resilience of a U.S. agricultural sector long accustomed to the vagaries of weather but under increasing pressure in recent years from foreign growers that sell to American supermarkets as well as rising costs and regulatory mandates. Along with leaving fields unplanted and diverting water to higher-value crops like berries or nuts, farmers in California—the nation’s biggest agricultural producer and exporter—are implementing robotics and other techniques for boosting productivity.

It isn’t clear whether the nascent water technologies can significantly dent water use and soothe concerns about availability in the near term. But some farmers and water-efficiency advocates say adopting new processes and technologies could cut agricultural water use by 10% to 25%.

A preliminary study in June by the Center for Watershed Sciences at the University of California, Davis, estimated the drought would cause $2.7 billion in statewide economic losses this year from farmers fallowing more than a half-million acres of land and 18,600 agriculture-related job losses. California recently ordered holders of some of the oldest and most significant water-rights claims in the state, many of whom are farmers, to stop drawing water.

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