Living the land, living the water. That’s how every grower operates, totally dependent on what is offered up by the weather gods.
Marshalling these resources gets a little easier with technology as Dusty Zamecnik points out at EZ Grow Farms Ltd., near Langton, Ontario. The Zamecnik family farm is located in what’s called the Grand River Watershed Node, part of the Canadian Water Network project. As the largest watershed in southern Ontario, the Grand River drains into Lake Erie through some of the most intensively farmed land in the province.
“Farmers work together in this area ensuring we all have enough water,” says Zamecnik.
Water management is challenged by population growth – almost one million inhabitants in the area and climate change. Local farmers can attest to severe frosts and more frequent droughts in recent years. The project researchers are monitoring and measuring quantity and quality of water, recording a baseline of data that can show when there are stressors in the watershed.
Wise water use may come as early as the upcoming full moons: April 22 and May 21. Those dates are critical for protecting 30 acres of blueberries from frost. It’s just the start of a long season of getting water to plants in the right form at the right time.
There are three systems protecting blueberries and a strawberry nursery: overhead sprinklers/retracting water guns and drip irrigation for blueberries and misting emitters for the strawberry nursery.
“These are not new technologies but how they are used is important in saving time and labour,” says Zamecnik.
Overhead sprinklers, for example, are no guarantee against frost but they can also be used later in the season when temperatures go higher than 30°C. At that point, sugars flow back from the berries into the plant, adversely affecting the flavour. Cooling blueberry plants with water can maintain brix levels in the fruit.
Years ago, eight-inch underground irrigation pipes were laid five feet below the blueberry fields. This makes it easy to hook drip irrigation into hydrants strategically located throughout the fields.
For every pump that’s used, there is a filter station to make sure there is no algae or dirt particles building in the lines. All blueberry bushes receive filtered water.
“We’re getting more precise on where we’re putting water,” says Zamecnik. “It’s the diesel for pumps and the time for managing that costs.”
Drip irrigation is used not only in the blueberry fields but also in the strawberry nursery for more precise watering. It doubles for fertigation in the strawberry nursery with a 10 to 12-inch band over the strawberry plants. A solar-powered panel charges the battery for a computer that times watering to the minute.
Drip tape is a major cost, especially when it has to be removed every year for field preparation. In single-year applications, that is for bareroot strawberry ground, Zamecnik uses six- to eight-millimetre thick drip tape.
It’s flimsy and relatively easy to puncture with a hoe or cultivator, but easy to fix. At the end of the growing season, about November, the hundreds of metres of tape are rolled up, bagged and sent to a recycling facility.
We’re getting more precise on where we’re putting water. It’s the diesel for pumps and the time for managing that costs.
~ DUSTY ZAMECNIK
“As we are seeing the effectiveness and gains from this drip tape, we are looking at reusable tape in our program,” says Zamecnik. “With tape that’s 15- or 20-millimetres thick, it’s more expensive but we hope the cost can be stretched over a few seasons to justify the practice.”
In the blueberry fields, 25-millimeter drip tape is used because it needs to endure everything from tractors and winds to pruning and winter weather.
“We look to have this on the ground for 20 years before replacing our blueberry field with new drip tape.”
Water management is also key for the strawberry nursery. Misting emitters are used to water strawberry plugs, sensitive to drying out. To ensure quality of the water, tests are conducted every other week. If a disease spot shows up on strawberries, then the question must be asked about the source. Is it disease resulting from a clogged filter? Could it be over-watering which leaches fertilizer below the root zone? Frequent water tests help to trace the source.
The strawberry nursery business is on a growth trajectory with negotiated rights to the greenhouses that used to belong to the Delhi Tobacco Research Station. When the federal station was closed
several years ago, it was sold to private buyers. Now those greenhouses will be used to generate disease- and virus-free plants from nuclear stock. The resulting plants will be grown out in the nursery and then sold to strawberry clients in the southern U.S. Here again, the high-grade water available at the station is an advantage since it is produced from reverse osmosis.
After the bareroot strawberry plants are grown out and put into plugs at the farm, they are graded and readied for shipment. They are placed into double-waxed boxes with a slice of ice to provide some humidity and moisture for the trip. These boxes have vents so that any water can drain onto the field. By conducting this chore in the field, the Zamecnik’s avoid any washwater issues that might otherwise be encountered in a covered facility.
It total, the farm has three permits to take water. The paperwork is the easy part. Today, water management is squeezing the resource into tinier components and metering them one drop at a time.