Water efficient technologies demonstrate less really is more
The project's research has found efficient irrigation can boost productivity and product quality

Water efficient technologies demonstrate less really is more

Rachel Anderson
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drip irrigation in orchard

Against the backdrop of the UK’s dwindling water resources, a proposed new water efficient technologies (WET) centre in Kent is aiming to help growers of horticultural crops make the most out of ‘the wet stuff’ – boosting both their productivity and the quality of their fruits and vegetables for the benefit of the entire horticultural supply chain. Produce Business UK hears from East Malling Research (EMR)’s Paul Dracott to find out more

New year: new goal

Many of us will no doubt have a fresh goal in mind as 2016 gets underway and EMR’s Paul Dracott is no exception. As of this month (January, 2016), he is ploughing all of his energy into setting up a new water efficient technologies (WET) centre at the Kent-based horticultural research station.

“All I really want to do is make this happen,” he declares; giving the sense that he is determined to make his plans for 2016 a reality. Given the three years of hard work that have led to this moment, it is little wonder he is so resolute.

Dracott was the project manager for the recently concluded Environmental Agency (EA) and European Regional Development Fund (ERDF)-backed, and Kent County Council-sponsored, WATERR project. The proposed WET centre is designed to be the successor to that initiative.

So far, Dracott and his team have held a series of workshops for growers in the South East to offer crucial advice on how to irrigate using the best available practices in the industry. These workshops followed extensive research – the results of which, he claims, confirmed the positive impact that efficient irrigation can have on growers’ profits and the quality of their crops.

Meeting the needs of the horticulture supply chain

One of the resounding messages from growers who attended those WATERR workshops was that they find it difficult to access the kind of crop-specific, hands on, technical advice and training with regards to the irrigation methods they need.

Dracott explains: “This is a grower-driven initiative. They told us they need one place where they can get all of this information.”

With that in mind, Dracott hopes the proposed WET centre, which focuses on soft fruit, tree fruit, salad crops and hardy nursery stock, will help address this problem. It will, he reveals, see irrigation experts liaise directly with growers, producer organisations, processors, and retailers to ensure the irrigation technologies that are being developed commercially – and taught at the centre – are meeting the needs of the horticulture supply chain.

“We will raise awareness of the commercial benefits of these new technologies through grower trials, crop specific workshops, demonstrations, training and one-to-one support,” he adds.

A man with a plan, Dracott is confident he will receive funding from existing partners to help set up the centre, which he expects will become financially self-sustainable once it’s up and running.

“It will be paid for in the long term by the suppliers of the equipment, technology and systems,” he confirms. However, Dracott admits he will continue to look to the wider horticulture industry for “external funding streams” in order to help the facility carry out new product development work with its supplier partners.

Water abstraction under review

Arguably, the importance of irrigation to the horticulture industry cannot be underestimated given that some crops, such as substrate-grown soft fruit, are entirely dependent on irrigated water. However, as growers irrigate land with abstracted water – that is, water that comes from sources such as rivers or boreholes – this process is currently vulnerable.

This is because the government is currently reviewing its licensing system for water abstraction with a view to putting in place a new scheme by the end of the decade (2020). The Department for Food, Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra) is carrying out this review because of the current pressure on water resources – there is less water per capita in the South East of England than some parts of the Middle East. The reform is therefore likely to include a tighter link between the amount of abstraction that growers are permitted to use and the amount of water that’s available.

Dracott warns that growers are therefore unlikely to “get more water” out of these reforms, particularly as the Environment Agency claims that many areas of the South East are already over abstracted. He says: “Government is removing all licenses and people will have to apply to get new licenses by 2020.”

Given the scarcity of such a vital substance, and the government’s abstraction review, the WATERR project was set up to help demonstrate the horticulture industry’s commitment to using water as efficiently as possible.

Briggs Irrigation R76 irrigating French beans

Abstraction reform: a “major concern” for growers

Prior to holding its workshops, the WATERR team interviewed 110 leading irrigators in the South East to assess and help determine their current water availability and how efficiently they were irrigating their crops. The team also looked at other considerations, such as the impact that irrigation has on their yields and financial returns, and which irrigation best practice technologies and techniques are key to improving their crop’s performance.

Unsurprisingly, Dracott and his team found that the government’s planned abstraction reform is “a major concern” for growers – and more than half of the irrigators interviewed said that they are not going to have enough water going into the future. The issue is particularly concerning because of the large growth in the substrate-based (as opposed to field-based) production of soft fruit, which is putting increasing pressure on growers’ water supplies.

Dracott explains: “When we looked at water use it was a bit of a surprise. Substrates use significantly more water compared with field-grown [crops].” Growers in Kent (where the majority of trickle irrigation for soft and top fruit crops is carried out) have doubled the amount of water used in trickle irrigation over the last seven years.

Dracott adds that Kent’s overall water usage for agricultural purposes has gone up by a third during this period of time. He also reveals that 76% of Kent-based irrigators claim irrigation is “crucially important” to their business. Moreover, growers of substrate-produced raspberry and strawberry crops are so dependent on irrigation they claim it accounts for 100% of their crops’ total proceeds. Dracott therefore asserts that: “If licensed volumes are restricted, or for a limited period only, production will be impacted and future investment decisions [will be] very difficult.”

Optimum irrigation – peak performance

Fresh produce category managers and growers alike know only too well the importance of a good quality, healthy crop – but what they, and many others in the supply chain, may not realise is those growers who are using their irrigated water as efficiently as possible are already achieving better results.

“The top performers are achieving 60% higher yields and gaining a 10% improvement on price because of a better quality crop,” reveals Draycott. “There’s a strong correlation between irrigation use efficiency and [growers’] returns.”

Optimum irrigation – which is achieved by employing practices such as the regular monitoring of moisture content in the substrate or the soil – also helps to improve the shelf life and taste of soft fruit, as well as fruit size and uniformity of tree fruit. According to Dracott, it can also improve the tuber size and skin finish in potatoes.

Evidently, it’s in the interest of everyone in the horticulture supply chain to ensure crops are irrigated in the best way possible, and the proposed WET centre will no doubt help the industry to make the most of its resources.

For more information on the proposed WET centre, contact Paul Dracott on [email protected]

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