TNC and partners demonstrate the installation of a soil moisture probe on a Florida farm.
Soil Moisture Probe TNC and partners demonstrate the installation of a soil moisture probe at the University of Florida Gulf Coast Research And Education Center in Balm, Florida. © David Royal/TNC

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TNC Nutrient Stewardship and IFAS Extension Team Up to Improve Irrigation Practices

TNC is partnering with the University of Florida on an innovative new program.

TNC’s Nutrient Stewardship program in Florida has partnered with University of Florida, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF IFAS) Extension in an innovative new program in Southwest Florida. Launching in early 2022, the program will teach farmers, growers and ranchers best management for irrigation practices.

Agriculture demands large volumes of water for irrigation needs. In Florida and around the world, TNC is working with food producers to apply science, practice and policy to develop viable solutions for sustainable food production. This means maximizing the impact of every drop of water and fertilizer, to support healthy waters for wildlife and people.

Soil moisture probe in a strawberry field in Florida.
Soil Moisture Probe This new technology transmits soil moisture and salinity data to a dashboard which farmers can access to monitor their crops. © David Royal/TNC

This new project by TNC and UF IFAS Extension is a step toward that goal. With funding from The Mosaic Company, TNC purchased 16 soil probes produced by BMP Logic and Holder Ag. The probes will be used in an education program for farmers in Hardee, Desoto, Polk, Manatee and Hillsborough counties.

The new technology tracks soil moisture and transmits the data to a digital dashboard. Farmers can see what’s happening under the soil in real time, informing their decisions about when and how to apply more water and fertilizer to their fields. One major benefit of the technology is that it allows farmers to monitor soil salinity in addition to soil moisture. By tracking salinity, farmers can see when nutrients are present in the rootzone, says David Royal, TNC’s nutrient stewardship project manager.

“By managing irrigation, we’re also managing nutrients in the soil, because farmers aren’t applying water that will push nutrients beyond the rootzone,” Royal says. That allows growers to optimize their fertilizer use, resulting in cost savings for them—and fewer nutrients leaching out of the soil and into nearby waterways.

UF IFAS Extension agents in north Florida recently experimented with the soil probes, with tremendous results. One farm reduced its water use by 290,000,000 gallons for a single year’s corn crop. After witnessing that success, TNC and UF IFAS teamed up to test the technology in the southwest region. Both farmers and extension agents have access to the digital dashboards, which reveal what’s happening underground at each agricultural site. When farmers have questions, they can reach out to their extension agent for help interpreting the data. TNC staff also has access to the dashboards and can step in to assist when extension staff are unavailable.

The goal is for farmers to partner with TNC to learn how to use the probes and implement best practices for nutrient stewardship. Once farmers are comfortable with the technology — and have seen how it can benefit them — they are likely to invest in their own probe systems. Then Nutrient Stewardship program partners will take the training system elsewhere to educate more farmers. Eventually, they hope to share the technology with farmers across Southwest and Central Florida.

Agriculture is one of the most resource-intensive industries on the planet. Modern farmers must balance the demands of agricultural production with growing conservation concerns.

Farmers want to do what’s best to protect the land and their agricultural legacy.

Florida nutrient stewardship project manager

In Florida, TNC works with farmers to implement the 4R Nutrient Stewardship program, supported by The Mosaic Company, to promote sustainable and effective fertilizer use. This new soil moisture probe project is one component of that effort.

Florida’s agricultural industry is a major contributor to the state economy, providing billions of dollars in cash crops and commodities exports each year, and employing 1.5 million people. Those farmers are committed to being good stewards of the 9.45 million acres of land they tend, Royal says. “Farmers want to do what’s best to protect the land and their agricultural legacy.”

“Sustainable agriculture will always be a work in progress, and the industry is very receptive to these new tools and technologies,” he adds. “We are excited about this partnership and looking at the many ways we can help the ag industry with water conservation and nutrient management.”

The Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all life depends. Guided by science, we create innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our world’s toughest challenges so that nature and people can thrive together. We are tackling climate change, conserving lands, waters and oceans at an unprecedented scale, providing food and water sustainably and helping make cities more sustainable. Working in 76 countries and territories—37 by direct conservation impact and 39 through partners—we use a collaborative approach that engages local communities, governments, the private sector, and other partners. To learn more, visit www.nature.org or follow @nature_press on Twitter.