Inside California Irrigation: Winters Farming

Winters Farming farm manager Alex Bergwerff (left) and Ranch Systems marketing and business development manager Hylon Kaufmann discuss water management in Manteca, CA.

As many of us already know, almonds tend to get a bad rap for their water-use efficiency — or some would argue, lack thereof — among specialty crops.

The fact that over 82% of the world supply of almonds are grown in perennially water-stressed California certainly doesn’t help much.

But what tends to get lost in all the mainstream buzz around how much of the water supply these tasty little nuts consume are the efforts of many progressive growers around the Golden State’s Central Valley to more efficiently manage moisture.

Alex Bergwerff, a farm manager for Winters Farming in Manteca, takes the reins on that front, and with a recent multi-million dollar investment in a full-suite Ranch Systems drip irrigation monitoring and control system, as well as a new catch reservoir, the operation is taking water management to a whole new level.

“We can’t really rely on the irrigation districts, and we don’t want to dig a bunch of new wells because everybody is cracking down on that, too,” explains Bergwerff, a Fresno State ag economics graduate. “So we dug a pond over there so we could fill it with surface water and just retain it for two or three weeks and fill it up a little bit at a time, and we can irrigate every day. And once we put this all in we needed someone to monitor everything, so we put in the Ranch Systems stuff.”

Bergwerff and crew started by breaking its almond groves into 45-acre blocks, installing drip lines with pressure transducers that transmit data back through the Ranch Systems app, as well as the typical control structures, pumps, and soil moisture probes.

All of the various sensors stations send data via radio signal back to what Bergwerff refers to as “the brain” of the system, which has a cellular uplink to transmit all the data back to Ranch Systems, where it is normalized and fed back into the mobile app on Alex’s device.

“The software is set up to separate the data by depth,” he says. “It shows you online in a graph, and you can see as the moisture is moving through the soil profile, you can see the lines start to spike and you can see how long it takes to infiltrate down through each level, or even if you’re getting deep moisture. Especially when we’re fertilizing, we don’t want to get moisture all the way down into that lowest profile.”

Now, instead of going by the age-old practice of irrigating once a week for 24-36 hours at a time, Bergwerff can leverage data to make a more informed decision, and it’s certainly changed the way he waters.

“We do it by hours (now),” he explains. “Last year at the beginning of the season when the trees weren’t fully awake yet we were doing 4 or 5 hour shots (of water) every two or three days, and then we started to see from the data that the water would runoff the berms quite a bit. So we switched to doing about 2 or 3 hours every day, and the infiltration was just a lot better and the trees grew better, you could see the root pull a lot better in the graph.”

Helpful Phone App

And Bergwerff, who closely straddles the line between Millennial and something known as a “Xennial”, can visualize and manipulate the system from his iPhone with Ranch Systems’ proprietary mobile app.

One of Bergwerff’s in-field weather stations, and Ranch Systems’ radio control module. In this image you can see drip irrigation tape recently installed in this relatively young almond grove.

“I have it setup so it has the soil moisture data streaming from each probe in each block,” he says. “Then I have our rain totals, dew point, humidity, the temperature for frost this time of year, and the pressure transducers for each drip line. So when they’re running, you’ll actually see the actual PSI show up (in the app).

Bergwerff also has a couple models he is running, including evapotranspiration (ET). “Since we have a weather station I can see ET for this exact ranch,” he says.

Hylon Kaufmann, marketing and business development manager at Ranch Systems, introduced us to Alex as part of our 2017 California Ag Tech Tour.

“Some of these growers like Alex are making huge investments in irrigation control and monitoring, with almost no immediate return-on-investment,” she marvels. “This investment probably won’t be paid off for seven years — that’s almost like trying to bring a new crop protection product to market.”

“Eventually it will pay for itself, but it just takes years to do it,” Bergwerff agrees. “The trees look healthier, they’re happier and throughout the growing season you don’t get the droop that you’d get when you’re putting on 24 hours of water.”

Paired with fertilizers and other inputs, he says they are getting 2,500-4,000 pound crops out of these trees with improved water use efficiency.

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