Georgia Farmers Irrigate Smarter

Camilla, Georgia

June 24, 2013


Allie Goldstein: This is Allie Goldstein and Kirsten Howard of Adaptation Stories. On June 24, 2013, we visited Camilla, Georgia.

We spent the day with Casey Cox, a 21-year-old, sixth-generation Georgian who just finished college and has returned to Camilla to help run her family farm. Some people were surprised by her decision.

[to Casey] So, you said some people were surprised you came back. Are there a lot of young farmers here?

Casey Cox: It’s mostly sons, to be honest. One of the biggest surprises of me—and not just my personality—is the fact that I’m a girl. A lot of wives and mothers will help with farms, but they’re never the ones who are in charge of it.

AG: The Cox family owns 2500 acres along the Flint River where they grow peanuts, sweet corn, and field corn. Casey has a firecracker of a personality, and her love for the land she grew up on is obvious.

CC: This is the longleaf wiregrass ecosystem I was telling you about. It’s absolutely beautiful. I know it doesn’t look that special but this is actually the most diverse ecosystem in the world second only to the tropics. Which, you would never expect that. But it’s all in the understory. There are so many different types of plant species and animal species…

AG: As Casey explained, the climate of southwest Georgia is one of extremes.

CC: We are so used to the extremes, one extreme to the other, with the drought and flood, drought and flood, drought and flood. In 1994 is what my dad called a hurrifizzle. We had a hurricane come over Georgia but then it just stalled. The river flooded, and that’s when our house flooded—our old house. There is a place, it’s too far upriver for us to take y’all, but—you see you high these trees are?—there’s one tree that has a bathtub in the top of the tree still.

AG: The other extreme is drought. In 2012, the Flint River was so low that Casey could walk across it. Farmers in Georgia rely on the aquifer to be replenished by rainwater in order to irrigate their crops. As Casey’s father, Glenn, explained, water is the one deal-breaker.

Glenn Cox: You can live with heat, you can live with cold, but you can’t live without water.

AG: With climate change, the weather in Georgia is expected to yo-yo even more. Calvin Perry, an agricultural engineer at the University of Georgia’s Stripling Irrigation Research Park, has been thinking a lot about the possibility of longer droughts.

Calvin Perry: There are going to be some years when our aquifers may not recharge. We better be realizing that, in general, we need to be more conservation-minded.

AG: Calvin was one of the lead researchers who developed a new technology called Variable Rate Irrigation. VRI, as it’s named for short, is a GPS-based system that can be added on to the center pivots used to irrigate fields. VRI allows farmers to irrigate more selectively. Casey explains:

CC: Kind of the main point with VRI especially is that there are several wetlands in fields—areas where water congregates. It’s natural with topography. But the only problem with that is, you’re irrigating a wetland. There are no crops there. So you’re losing money, you’re losing water, you’re losing electricity. So VRI was developed to be able to cut that off.

AG: With VRI, farmers can use a computer to program different water flow rates for different sections of the field. They can also program the pivot to ‘walk’ at different speeds as it reaches different sections of the field, therefore irrigating more or less.

Casey works at Stripling Irrigation Research Park in the mornings, and Calvin is teaching her the ins and outs of the technology.

CP: How do we determine application depth? [prompting Casey] Flow rate through… The speed that it walks across the field, flow rate through the pipe, and then the flow rate that each sprinkler is spitting out water. The slower it walks, the deeper the depth you apply. So if you were the soil and I’m moving across you that fast, you’re not going to get much water, right? But if I move this slow… Like if you’d have stood under that water a long time, you would’ve got wetter, right?

AG: VIR works in tune with soil moisture monitors, a technology that is already adopted widely in Georgia. The monitors measure soil moistures at different depths. The data is currently transmitted via radio, but changes are coming.

CC: Pretty soon, this is all going to be mobile. So I can just park my truck right there, pull out my cell phone, collect all the data, and then just be like—okay, should I irrigate or not?

AG: VIR also works well with another technology called a drop nozzle, which applies water closer to the ground—preventing it from evaporating before it reaches the crops. The Cox family was one of the first to try out the drop nozzle technology about 14 years ago, and many Georgia farmers followed suit. The Coxes are now on the forefront of testing Variable Rate Irrigation. Glenn shares his thoughts.

GC: It’s got great potential, but they still have some bugs to work out.

AG: We visited the Longleaf Ridge Farm, where a Haitian crew was busy picking the sweet corn for the July 4th market. John Donalson and Brent Faircloth were overseeing the operation. John is a big fan of the water-saving technologies.

John Donalson: We are fortunate here to be on a good aquifer. But, it’s also driven by the rain refilling it, recharging it. And if you don’t get that recharge, then how much you can pump is kind of limited. So they started these here drop nozzles, and the amount of water going down was so much better than the old impact kind. Our farm started doing this before it was common.

AG: Of the 13,000 or so center pivots in Georgia, about 75 farmers are using the VRI technology. Small VIR systems can cost as little as $6,000, with state and federal tax shares, while larger ones cost up to $25,000.

Calvin and Casey are both thinking about how to get more farmers to adopt Variable Rate Irrigation. The Flint River Basin Partnership, which includes the Flint River Soil and Water Conservation District, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, and The Nature Conservancy, has been spearheading the effort, and Casey is one of their best ambassadors.

CC: The whole point of the partnership is to introduce the farmer to the technology—it’s available, it’s here, you can have this—and get them to want to adopt it.

AG: The goal of all these gadgets, of course, it to conserve water, energy, and money while making Georgia farms more resilient to drought years—and to keep that sweet corn coming.

[to John] So the most important question: do you eat it this way, or around?


CC: Oh, you’re an around eater? I always go down the line.

To view more photos click here.

4 thoughts on “Georgia Farmers Irrigate Smarter

  1. Truly excellent story/podcast. Interesting that existing technologies and practices developed for other reasons can also be adaptation tools. Great to see a young woman like Casey, with a deep understanding and love of the land, return to farming and apply state-of-the-art techniques.

  2. Pingback: On Flood and Thirst: How Communities Are Adapting to the Age of Unpredictable Water « Great American Adaptation Road Trip

  3. props to the cox family… not the least bit surprised casey chose to return to the land she loves. farm on! patricia breen

  4. Pingback: Green Conduct | What does Climate Adaptation Look Like?

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