GAINESVILLE, Fla. (UF/IFAS) — Farming is a business of uncertainty. Through droughts and downpours, generations of Florida farmers have continued to till the land and contribute to a multibillion-dollar industry for the state.
But agricultural innovations aim to minimize that uncertainty, and among the technological advances working to improve farmers’ crop yields are soil moisture sensors, which a University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Extension agent calls “eyes in the ground.”
“Soil moisture sensors allow farmers to manage the water needs of the crop in the most efficient way, enabling them to avoid over-irrigation and loss of plant nutrients to leaching,” said Tatiana Sanchez, a UF/IFAS Extension Alachua County commercial horticulture agent who oversees part of a regional program that lends the sensors to farmers. “It is important for water quality and quantity.”
To encourage the use of this technology, UF/IFAS Extension Northeast District – which includes 17 counties situated between Madison, Nassau and Citrus – introduced a program in 2017, installing the sensors free of charge to allow growers to view and understand the data provided before they commit to the investment. Funding from the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Sciences (FDACS) helped launch the program.
“This program has been very successful in getting soil moisture sensors in the hands of agents and farmers,” said Charles Barrett, a UF/IFAS Extension Northeast District regional specialized agent for water resources, who introduced and continues to direct the program. “The idea is to all learn together, empower the agents to teach irrigation management and expose growers to a new technology.”
Barrett said the distribution of the 20-plus sensors to farmers is overseen by approximately 15 Extension agents throughout his district, but he has hopes to expand within his region and even statewide. He said the additional funding he is currently seeking would support additional sensors and agents to come on board across the state.
“So far, there has been good interest throughout the state,” he said. “I plan to oversee the program for the state, providing support and training to the agents.”
The probes, Sanchez explained, typically have five sensors that can be set at adjustable depths from 4 to 36 inches to measure the amount of moisture in the soil. The probe also has a battery, a main board, an antenna and a cell phone-like device that transmits the data, which is then graphed and can be reviewed by the user on a mobile device.
“The sensors also provide volumetric ion content, which is an indication of salt levels at multiple depths,” Sanchez added. “Indirectly, this gives growers an idea of where the fertilizer is in the soil profile and if those nutrients have leached beyond the root zone due to rainfall or excessive irrigation.”
According to Barrett, the sensors offer a best management practice to account for the unique irrigation needs of Florida’s soil.
“Florida soils are so sandy that we have to irrigate if we want to grow a productive crop,” Barrett said. “If we can help growers be more efficient with their water use, we’re doing two things: We’re keeping the water and nutrients in the root zone, and we’re maximizing the water and nutrient uptake by the crop.”
The sensors are offered to farms for one season so that growers can observe how water requirements change as the crop matures, Sanchez said. Her office also regularly assists farmers who have already adopted the technology with interpreting graphs or determining the best plan of action for fulfilling water needs.
Sanchez said that since UF/IFAS Extension Alachua County began offering the program last year, six farms have participated. Of the four farms that have completed the trial period, she noted, three have applied to cost-share programs with their water management district to access the technology. This is in line with Barrett’s district-wide estimate that 80% of participating farms have gone on to adopt the technology.
“If I can save a grower a few irrigation events per season, that’s water saved and money in their pocket, and could pay for the sensor itself,” Barrett said. “I’m always looking to keep farmers more sustainable in the long run.”