From the Field: Sustainability, the New Buzz Word

From the Field is a bi-monthly column written by Mark Campbell, Farm Bureau Field Services Director for the Central District. He writes about Farm Bureau member benefits and County Farm Bureau activities.

Sustainability is the hot buzz word that everyone talks about these days.  Some people have different definitions of the word, but Wikipedia defines it, in part, as “to maintain, support or endure.”  Further information on the Wikipedia page on sustainability was as varied as there are opinions on what sustainable is and more than I wanted to endure.  But I think most people would agree that a sustainable practice has outputs that are equal or greater than the inputs, without totally depleting the inputs. 
Water is one of those inputs, and we all use it.  Farmers and ranchers wisely utilize water to produce food, fiber, and other products.  I can cite numerous examples where agriculturalists have stepped up to the plate to meet the demands of a rapidly growing global population by using less water, land, fertilizer and fuel.

I want to highlight a local agriculture family business that defines sustainability and recently won an award for it.  Saunders Brothers, of Piney River, won the 2013 Environmental Stewardship Award from the Virginia Nursery and Landscape Association (VNLA).  Saunders Brothers is a large scale wholesale nursery and fruit producer in Nelson County.  Saunders Brothers started doing Evapotranspiration (ET)- based irrigation during the summer of 2011.  The goal of ET-based irrigation is to determine the amount of water lost from a containerized plant during one day and to replace exactly that amount through irrigation.  They have been conducting cutting edge research with the University of Florida on ET-based irrigation. 
Further testing and research was using Leachate Fraction (LF) technology, which is the ratio of the excess water lost out of the bottom of the container during an irrigation cycle to the total irrigation applied.  Testing and research was also conducted on the amount of nutrients that stayed in the pot.  The results of their testing showed that equal or better quality plants could be grown using less water and fertilizer.  It was determined that fertility levels could be reduced by as much as 30-40 percent on some crops.  This precision-type irrigation resulted in their using 50 percent less water in 2012 compared to the previous five year average. 
Saunders Brothers further enhanced this trial process by installing wireless irrigation controllers on a portion of the nursery.  So instead of adjusting irrigation levels out in the field, the irrigation run times are programmable on PCs and the data is wirelessly transmitted to control panels.  The irrigation system can even be run from the University of Florida in Gainesville from a PC.  They plan to convert the rest of the nursery to the wireless system by the fall of 2013.  By utilizing this technology, they are able to apply the specific amounts of irrigation and nutrients that the particular plants need, no more and no less.  The programmable irrigation system takes into account the type of plant, pot size and crown of plant. 
This year, another component will be added to the ET-based irrigation.  They plan to install an on-site weather system.  The on-site weather system will be tied into the irrigation system.  So rainfall will be factored into the irrigation needs.  For example, if 0.25” of water is called for a group of plants, and a 0.25” of rain falls, the irrigation system will not supply water that day. 
Saunders Brothers has other conservation measures such as irrigation ponds that also catch runoff from the nursery.  These ponds catch water that can be recycled back through the nursery.  The ponds also serve as settling locations for runoff nutrients which the company monitors on a regular basis.  Everything is tied together.  This is today’s precision agriculture.  An agriculture industry that precisely and smartly utilizes natural resources.
Sustainability, a buzz word, yes, but to many in the agriculture community, it is a way of doing business that helps profitability, efficiently utilizes natural resources and inputs and ensures that the business can be transitioned to the next generation.
American agriculture has been a shining light around the world when it comes to food production.  Time and time again, American agriculture has risen to the challenge.  We have another challenge ahead of us.  There will be 2.5 billion more people to feed in the year 2050, and we will have to find a way to do that.  No doubt that technology will be a major factor, and I am sure that we will continue to do it in a sustainable way. 
Until next time,

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