May/June 2023
Water stewardship crucial to growers’ operations By John Mesko, executive director, Potato Sustainability Alliance

Farm sustainability is more than a drop in a bucket

With water becoming an increasingly valuable commodity, potato growers are challenged to soak up every drop of this essential resource. Today, access to the quantity and quality of water needed to produce a profitable crop isn’t as direct as it used to be for many North American farms.

Maximizing moisture is vital to sustainable potato production, and responsible water stewardship practices support economic and environmental goals — on and off the farm. Benefits range from making data-driven decisions gleaned from irrigation technology to understanding the positive impact that improving infiltration and reducing runoff can have on the local watershed.

Mesko

“The two biggest inputs needed to grow a crop are water and nutrients,” said Mike Nemeth, senior advisor, agricultural and environmental sustainability at Nutrien. “Potatoes are an integral crop and especially reliant on those inputs. As an industry, we have a responsibility to not only make sure we’re growing them in a sustainable manner but also tell the story that includes the entire value chain perspective of how it’s being done, starting on the farm.”

Not every grower, input supplier, processor or buyer has the same experience or objectives when it comes to water management. But Nemeth said effective water stewardship is grounded in good agronomy, while communication and collaboration can identify and achieve common goals.

Both are priorities for the Potato Sustainability Alliance and a long-term commitment to being a trusted water stewardship resource for industry stakeholders. The organization’s multiphase initiative will help partners in potato production understand how, when and why to implement stewardship practices that align with and advance their sustainability goals.

Nemeth, leader of PSA’s water sustainability working group, supports a localized approach to improving awareness and adoption of management practices that support water stewardship. To help growers define their specific water management objectives, the PSA plans to work within ag communities to assess regional water risks, benchmark progress and correlate outcomes to broader efforts within the local watershed.

“Everyone has a different level of interest in water stewardship, so we want to have an approach that can provide a value proposition for water stewardship activity in the Pacific Northwest or in the Canadian Prairie Provinces,” Nemeth said. “Our goal is to identify drivers and opportunities for water stewardship in a particular area, then help with regionally appropriate tools, models or metrics to help best address shared water challenges and have the most local impact.”

While the PSA’s water stewardship initiative will be farmer-focused, Nemeth said its structure will be flexible and simple because the benefits of smarter water management extend beyond potato production. Producers tend to grow more than just potatoes, with grains, oilseeds, legumes or other crops often part of their crop rotation.

“If a potato farmer in a water-stressed area also grows oats or sugar beets, maybe the companies sourcing those commodities will be interested in and engage in collective action in that watershed. So you can have the full ag sector in that area engaged from a water perspective,” Nemeth said. “Understanding and overcoming challenges tied to water quality or availability is important for anyone sourcing any ag commodity from fields.”

Case study

Progressive water management is essential to the sustainability of Threemile Canyon Farms in Boardman, Oregon. Photo: Threemile Canyon Farms

On-farm water management is a gradual process, with growers gravitating toward the practices that align with their current operational needs and future goals. Incremental adoption often allows farms to extrapolate broad economic and environmental benefits.

With more than 400 center-pivot irrigation systems covering 40,000 acres, progressive water management is essential to the sustainability of Threemile Canyon Farms in Boardman, Oregon. A progressive investment in irrigation technology — including analysis of historical and current weather information — guides precise water management decisions down to the individual sprinkler heads.

Soil sampling data and moisture probes allow farm irrigation managers to customize water and nutrient applications by crop circle. And the addition of pumping automation controls has contributed to 666,000 fewer kilowatt hours of power used to operate the pivots.

Learn more about how sustainability practices contribute to the success of Threemile Canyon Farms and other progressive potato operations in PSA’s grower profile series at potatosustainabilty.org.



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