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Computers Cropping Up in Effort to Counter the Drought : Farming: Only a few growers have gone high-tech, but officials expect wider use of data to determine water use.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

At 5 every morning Santa Rosa Valley lemon farmer Will Gerry gets up and checks his computer screen.

Without looking outside to see if it is cloudy or bright, Gerry can check the soil moisture in his groves through sensors electronically linked to his terminal. Monitors tell him how much water he is pumping from a well and how much water he needs to keep his plants alive on his 93-acre ranch.

“I’m getting it down so that I know how many gallons I’m putting on each orchard,” Gerry, 44, said.

After four years of below-average rainfall, growers are turning to computers to help them conserve the county’s dwindling water supplies. Farmers and water agencies are deploying an arsenal of computerized data as a weapon in the battle against the drought.

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Each day, computers linked to weather stations around the county measure wind, rain and temperatures and send that information by computer to farmers.

So far, only a few of Ventura County’s farmers have purchased computers to reduce their water consumption. But with the drought an ongoing concern, water agency officials say it is only a matter of time before the rest fall in line.

“We’re pushing whatever is required to get the efficiency upgraded in irrigation systems,” said Dick Barnett, engineering manager for the Casitas Municipal Water District.

The district’s computers have begun auditing water consumption at a number of farms and have turned up many cases in which farmers were over-irrigating crops, Barnett said.

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So far, water conservation measures are voluntary. District officials recently voted to try to reduce demand at least 20% by requesting that customers, including farmers, try to cut water consumption.

But if the drought continues, water conservation may become mandatory. The district has been compiling information on water needs for various crops. Such computerized information will be used to enforce rationing plans if they are imposed next year, Barnett said.

Lee Waddle, who runs the mobile irrigation management laboratory for the Ventura County Resource Conservation District, said fewer than 10% of farmers use computers to help them reduce water consumption on their fields.

Farmers have been getting by so far “by the seat of their pants,” he said. The typical farmer, he said, takes a shovel to his fields to determine whether the soil is saturated or dry.

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But the increasing price and scarcity of water no longer permits haphazard practices, he said. Today’s farmer, he said, has to take advantage of the best of technology and combine that with experience and common sense. “You still have to go outside,” Waddle said.

Because of increased interest in conservation, the United Water Conservation District and Casitas Municipal Water District have plans to set up three new weather stations linked by computer to the state Department of Water Resources in Sacramento.

The county’s only existing station is part of the California Irrigation Management Information Systems, which gathers weather readings from an orchard in Santa Paula.

The station is unsophisticated: a sensor attached to a 50-square-inch plot of turf. But it is one of 60 used in the state used to determine “evapotranspiration rates,” a component in formulating watering plans, Waddle said.

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Within six months, two more stations will be added by the United Conservation Water District, one in Piru and another at an undetermined site in the county, hydrologist Greg Middleton said.

Middleton said computers help water managers compile huge banks of weather data into information that farmers can use. They also will be used to scientifically prove to farmers that they are over-irrigating.

“A lot of people are entrenched in their system of irrigation,” Middleton said. The more scientific the approach, “the better conservation we can have.”

But computers have not always lessened the load for some farmers, said Waddle, who analyzes irrigation schedules for the Ventura County Resource Conservation District.

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Numbers gathered by computers can give farmers data, but they must do calculations to use them in a watering plan, and the math has intimidated many farmers.

Calculations may be easy for permanent crops, but there are other factors, including the age and type of crop, its location and how deeply it is planted, Waddle said.

Fruit Growers Laboratories in Santa Paula is a private company that about 280 farmers pay to compile data so they do not have to invest in their own computers. For many farmers and managers, using computers is not as easy as it looks, one company official said.

“We have the problem here of many small farms, a lot of absentee owners,” said Darrell Nelson, president of the company. “So the actual farming gets left up to a laborer, and he’s not about to use that level of technology.”

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Nelson said he charges farmers $16 per acre per year to come up with computerized version of weekly or monthly irrigation programs.

Although the drought has caused some farmers to lose money, the Santa Paula company has made money from helping farmers ration their water, Nelson said.

Farmers have also turned to his company because water agencies have become more complicated in the way they deliver water, Nelson said. Some allow agricultural customers to use water only on certain days, making it difficult for farmers to match the availability of supplies to the time when plants are getting dry. Not all of his clients are told to use less water. Some are told to use more, he said.

Despite the increased interest in irrigating by computer, most agricultural officials agree that there is no substitute for visiting the fields.

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Farmers “are ultimately responsible,” Nelson said. “We’re just scheduling irrigation, we’re not running the farm for them.”

Gerry, the Santa Rosa Valley lemon grower, is one of the few farmers to strike out on his own with computers. He has invested thousands of dollars into high-tech gadgetry to inform him of what his forefathers tried to gauge by experience and luck.

Gerry bought a terminal, software and other computer hardware about a month ago. He said he was planning to buy the equipment anyway, but the drought made it imperative.

“Regardless of whether you have your own well or whether you’re purchasing it, the more finely tuned you can get your watering system, the better your trees will grow,” Gerry said.

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