Wise Use of Waterby Shirley Wentworth, Herald Basin bureau
Tri-City Herald, September 29, 2003
GEORGE -- Wes Boorman knew a couple of things when he started farming.
He knew how to turn water on and off.
"If it was hot, you turned it on," he joked.
Boorman, 49, didn't plan to be a farmer. He didn't want to "spend his life behind a shovel" digging irrigation ditches.
But after three years in college, Boorman discovered it wouldn't be so bad. His father had purchased new property near George and offered Boorman to opportunity to farm some of it for himself. On the plus side, Boorman discovered farming had changed with new irrigation techniques. It intrigued the college boy.
Now farming is evolving yet again, and Boorman is one of the first to implement the new technology.
The new system allows Boorman to oversee his 2,000 acres of potatoes, sweet corn, wheat, bluegrass seed and mustard from his office computer. In real time.
The computer program constantly monitors information relayed from sensors in his fields. The incoming data translates into red, blue, green, purple and orange lines that spike across complicated graphs.
Those lines tell him how much moisture is in the soil, how far the water has seeped into the ground, what percentage of the field is watered, if irrigation is on or off, and how much water the roots are drinking.
Others have noticed Boorman's successes in increased yields, reduced fertilizer waste and water savings.
The Washington State Potato Commission nominated Boorman for a national Environmental Stewardship Award, noting his pesticide risk reduction strategy, disposal and handling techniques for pesticides, crop rotational strategy, pest management practices, water and soil conservation and habitat preservation.
"You and the other three award winners are leaders in adopting innovations that reduce the risks associated with pesticide application, support wildlife habitat and promote improved water quality and water conservation," wrote Dave Warsh, president of the National Potato Council, in a letter informing Boorman of the award.
But recognition is far from Boorman's mind at his rural farmhouse. On one recent day as he read through his irrigation charts and graphs, his eyebrows shot up and his eyes grew big.
"The refrigeration is not on," he said.
"That's a problem."
He muttered that the cooling system in the potato shed, which had a capacity of 14,000 tons, appeared to have been off for about three and a half hours. It was a big deal for a crop that must remain cool to be fresh for market.
Boorman began using his new irrigation management system about four years ago when the three-county Ground Water Management Area organization offered farmers financial help installing it.
It was in 1997 when Boorman started worrying that he worked too much. The demands of his farm meant he hardly ever saw his kids, who now range from 10 to 23. So he hired someone to help him irrigate, which is one of many labor-intensive tasks on the farm.
That year, Boorman took off on a trip to Africa with a daughter, not worrying at all. On his return, he learned the irrigation was fine, but disease had ravaged his crops.
Boorman, who is always experimenting with new gadgets and methods, decided to test the new technology in 1999 when GWMA had money available to help install the technology.
GWMA was formed in 1998 to stave off federal intervention in Franklin, Adams and Grant counties. Federal agencies had discovered high nitrate levels throughout the Columbia Basin, and local groups were anxious to avoid federal regulations expected to roll in if something wasn't done.
GWMA's primary mission is nitrate reduction, and its cornerstone irrigation water management. Too much water draws fertilizer deep into the soil and into the water table where it feeds ground water pollution. The Basin's nitrate pollution began with overwatering farming practices of the 1950s and '60s. The new conservation system pinpoints exactly how much water a field needs, preventing excess water from traveling beyond the root zone.
The new system won state regulators approval.
"It's a situation where both the environment and the farmer benefits," said Victoria Leuba, watershed lead for the state Department of Ecology. "They're watering based on the data (about soil conditions) and not on the clock. They're getting the highest beneficial use they can get from that water."
"It can take anywhere from one week to 50 years to clean," said Paul Stoker, GWMA director.
Stoker, a longtime Basin farmer, knows first hand how it happened. He recalled his father's philosophy of applying water and fertilizer.
"He'd go down the road and see how much that farmer was using, then he'd go down the other way and see how much that guy was using. Then he'd come home and use twice as much," Stoker said.
But GWMA's 2004 budget is in trouble. In 2003, farmers signed up 350,000 acres, hoping to get in on the cost-sharing program. GWMA had only enough money to help with 100,000 acres.
However, Stoker said the Bonneville Power Administration recently got into the act and is studying what effect it would have on the river if 360,000 acre feet are able to remain in Lake Roosevelt. He said there's a possibility BPA will kick in some money for the program.
"Where that goes, we'll see," he said.
Although Boorman still had doubts that first year, the program didn't take long to sell. Prior to getting the new computer system and all the field monitors, an agriculture consultant would out weekly with a moisture probe. The analyst would have to take the data back to the lab for results. The old way was slow, inefficient and often a guess of how much to water from week to week, Boorman said.
Even during that first year, Boorman had problems. He would check the fields daily reading what the probes said. Then he was stunned to discover one field absolutely dry after a three-day period, despite all the monitoring.
The learning curve for interpreting basic information from the graphs lasted about a year. In the second year, Boorman began to discern patterns, interpreting more intricate information. That's when he began learning how to figure out when and how much his crops' roots really drink.
The new system also helped him figure out how overirrigation contributes to crop diseases.
In early August, when potato plants are really green, they still appear to need a lot of water, explained Travis Meacham, a Simplot agriculture consultant. In reality, overirrigating maturing potatoes causes the skin cells on the tubers to open up, straining for air, and inviting fungi that ultimately cause rot.
"When the plant isn't getting enough water, it's getting stressed and thinks, 'No water. I don't have to produce,' " said Meacham, who helped Boorman learn what the computer graphs had to say.
Although wheat takes a back seat on a potato farm, last year was the best ever for Boorman's wheat fields -- about 160 bushels per acre. This year, production is up again -- 10 to 15 bushels more per acre to an average 175.
Meacham said the system Boorman uses, which requires the sensors to send signals via radio waves to computers and on to the Internet, is just one of various technologies now available. He said even this one is evolving. He said he believes it to be the best.
"This is the technology we're pushing now. It's insurance in a way, too. It takes a lot of the risk out," he said.
He said the system reduces water usage, energy and fertilizer use. He also said it reduces fungal attacks and storage rot and increased yields and quality.
He said he remembers how his irrigator, Darrin Reynolds, had a tough time adapting to the new technology.
"When 2000 came along, (he) thought I went nuts," he said.
With the new technology, Boorman avoids mistakes he used to make. As a young farmer, he made a ton of mistakes he can't afford to make today.
More than the dollars and cents, Boorman said he considers the nitrate leaching problem uppermost. His farm land is in the Black Sands district, which has the most permeable soil -- and some of the highest nitrate ground water levels -- in the Basin.
"Every field I look at, I'm thinking about the nitrogen levels," he said. "We have to clean our act up."
There are some additional perks to getting hooked on remote-control farming.
"They didn't have remote-control cars when I was a kid," Boorman jokes. "I'm making up for that now."
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