NRCS

Quantifying Water Use

Angie Harris“New York City is surrounded by water,” Angie Harris says, “I realized it was a great source of beauty, transportation, and recreation. But it was also contaminated and deeply problematic.” Angie grew up in Queens, New York. She realized water was a crucial resource of concern while an undergraduate at New York University studying environmental sciences.

The interdependent relationship of farming, water and land was also intriguing to Angie. Precipitation and ecology are critical to success in farming. She earned her masters’ degree in environmental science at the University of Rhode Island and worked as a research fellow at the Environmental Protection Agency in the Global Change Research Program. Angie joined UConn Extension two years ago as the Program Coordinator for the Agriculture Water Security Project.

The Agriculture Water Security Project is part of the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS)’s Regional Conservation Partnerships Program and promotes conservation assistance to agricultural producers. The program facilitates Extension’s work in ensuring farmers are thinking about and preparing for drought.

“I serve as a resource for farmers, gardeners, and homeowners to guide and advise them on water conservation and drought preparedness and management. I also serve as a network builder and connect them to other existing resources and organizations,” Angie says. She uses a combination of her education, and personal experience as a full-time farmer for three years in her role on the project. “My mission is to increase the adoption of conservation practices and activities throughout the state.”

Extension is assessing how much water farmers use, and completed a statewide water use survey on irrigation practices and water availability concerns. Next, a pilot metering project at 12 farms tracked their weekly water use for two years. The farms included vegetable, dairy, and nursery and greenhouse operations.

“The farmers kept diligent records and it was inspiring to see how they became scientists and water managers. A curiosity emerged around water use and they demonstrated that they really wanted to know how much water they were using and when,” Angie says.

A key turning point in the water project came at the end of 2016, a serious drought year for Connecticut. UConn Extension hosted a drought listening session for farmers at the Capitol and documented their concerns and ideas in a clear way that was communicated with the state Department of Agriculture and NRCS.

Connecticut developed a state water plan over the last few years. Mike O’Neill, associate dean for outreach and associate director of UConn Extension, served on the planning committee and represented agriculture in the plan’s development.

The next step for the Agriculture Water Security Project was helping farmers prepare drought plans and connecting them to financial assistance from NRCS. A total of 10 projects were provided financial assistance related to developing more robust and secure irrigation infrastructure. Projects included new wells and buried irrigation pipeline.

“We helped a couple of farms access funding to install wells, and it continues to be rewarding to see how pleased the farmers are to have the new resources,” Angie mentions. The Extension project continues to offer irrigation and drought planning resources for farmers.

“I’m excited to see farmers living out their values around land stewardship and food production in thoughtful and creative ways. There is always something that people can do, or a small action they can take to be a mindful citizen,” Angie says. “There is always more to learn, for farmers and residents. For instance, knowing how much water it took to make your jeans or plastic food packaging – it’s important for all of us to continue our learning around the impacts of our actions and consumption.”

Angie led UConn Extension’s initiative around the 40-Gallon Challenge, a national call for residents and businesses to reduce water use on average by 40 gallons per person, per day. It quantifies impacts on the linkage between small actions and water use.

Citizens nationwide are encouraged to participate in the 40-Gallon Challenge by enrolling at http://www.40gallonchallenge.org/. Materials were developed and promoted by Angie and Casey Lambert, a student intern, that quantified water saved by various actions residents can take in their home and yard.

Connecticut is no longer in a drought. But the work of stewardship continues. Angie’s goal is to prepare farmers and residents before water resources become a crisis. By encouraging everyone to simplify, we hone in on the essential needs and ensure successful growing seasons in the years to come.

This project is sponsored by USDA, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Award identification 68-1106-15-05.

Article by Stacey Stearns

Preparing Agricultural Leaders for Drought

Article by Kim Colavito Markesich

Originally published by Naturally.UConn.edu

 

water meter install
Water meter installation. Photo: Angie Harris

While Connecticut residents live in a state with ample water resources, we are beginning to notice some changes in precipitation trends.

“Connecticut is very fortunate as we’re actually quite water rich,” says Angie Harris, research assistant in UConn Extension. “We are getting rainfall, but there’s a shift in what we are beginning to experience, and what scientists expect to continue, which is more intense rain events less frequently. This type of rainfall can lead to drought conditions for agricultural producers.”

In 2015, Connecticut requested over $8 million dollars in federal emergency loans to be made available for crop losses due to moderate drought conditions across the state.

Mike O’Neill, associate dean and associate director of UConn Extension, and Harris are working on a two-year water conservation project funded through the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Regional Conservation Partnership Program. Funding is provided through a $400,000 NRCS grant matched one to one by the College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources.

The UConn team is partnering with NRCS to promote conservation assistance to agricultural producers. The project goal focuses on agricultural water security by helping farmers prepare for drought, improve their irrigation efficiency and establish water conservation practices.

“In the past, NRCS did everything themselves,” O’Neill explains. “But now they are outsourcing some of that work because they realize we have partnerships in the community that can be effective in helping people implement agricultural conservation practices. I think this is a very innovative act on the part of the NRCS.”

Twelve pilot sites across the state have been identified to include a variety of agricultural operations including greenhouses, nurseries, vegetable growers and dairy and livestock farms.

“We’re really trying to target new and beginning agricultural operations because we feel they run the greatest risk of failure as a result of drought,” O’Neill says. “We look at what these operations can do in advance to make them more secure when a drought hits. If you can prepare farmers in advance, then when drought occurs, they’re not dealing with mitigation or lost crops, they will be able to weather the drought and be successful.”

The first step in the project involved review of the operations, followed by a site visit. Then the team installed a water meter at each site. The meter information is easily managed by farmers through an innovative text messaging data collection method developed by Nicholas Hanna, computer programmer with the College’s Office of Communications. The program allows operators to check their meter reading once weekly, quickly send the results via text messaging and receive a confirmation of their submission.

The readings are entered into a database associated with their number and farm name. By season’s end, the team will chart water usage tied to climate variables such as precipitation and wind, and will then review current watering practices and help owners develop strategies that manage water usage and prepare for drought conditions.

The NRCS will also use this data to help farmers access water saving strategies and equipment.

“In the end, we will be directing them to NRCS for financial assistance to implement conservation practices,” says Harris. The NRCS financial assistance programs are designed to help agricultural producers maintain and improve their water program in areas such as soil management and irrigation efficiency.

Some seventy-five agricultural producers have expressed interest in the program thus far, with the number growing weekly. To join the program, farmers complete a water use survey available online. A member of the team will conduct a field site visit. “If farmers are interested in getting a meter, we want to hear from them,” says O’Neill.

“We have a really great team working on this project,” he says. The group includes Rosa Raudales, assistant professor and horticulture extension specialist in the Department of Plant Science and Landscape Architecture; Mike Dietz, extension educator in water resources, low impact development and storm water management; and Ben Campbell, former assistant professor in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics, currently an assistant professor and extension economist at the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

In another aspect of the project, the team is partnering with the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and the Office of Policy and Management to explore water needs for agriculture in Connecticut. This understanding could inform policy decisions for future agricultural development within the state.

“This is a teachable moment for us,” O’Neill says. “We feel like these agricultural producers are scientists. We have an opportunity to help farmers conserve water, increase profitability and preserve the environment. They treat their business as a science, and we are trying to work with them to help them enhance their science capabilities and make better choices.”

International Year of Soils

soilThe U.S. Department of Agriculture kicked off its celebration of the International Year of Soils  to highlight the importance of healthy soils for food security, ecosystem functions and resilient farms and ranches.
“Healthy soil is the foundation that ensures working farms and ranches become more productive, resilient to climate change and better prepared to meet the challenges of the 21st century,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said during an event at USDA headquarters. “We join the world in celebrating this living and life-giving resource.”
With an increasing global population, a shrinking agricultural land base, climate change, and extreme weather events the nations of the world are focusing their collective attention to the primary resource essential to food production—the soil. The United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization, working within the framework of the Global Soil Partnership, spearheaded the adoption of a resolution by the UN General Assembly designating 2015 as the International Year of Soils. The year of awareness aims to increase global understanding of the importance of soil for food security and essential ecosystem functions.
“Most people don’t realize that a diverse, complex, and life-giving ecosystem is right below our feet,” said Lisa Coverdale, State Conservationist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in Connecticut. “NRCS is helping producers unlock the power of soil health as part of an important and very successful national campaign which demonstrates our renewed commitment to soil conservation and soil health.”
NRCS is coordinating activities to mark USDA’s involvement in the International Year of Soils. Nearly 80 years ago, NRCS (formerly the Soil Conservation Service) was created to improve the health and sustainability of our nation’s soils. The agency’s original mission continues to this day – providing assistance to producers looking to improve the health of the soil on their land. 
Conservation that works to improve soil health is one of the best tools NRCS has to help landowners face these impending challenges – and maintain and improve their productivity with the use of soil management systems that includes cover crops, conservation tillage, and no-till and crop rotations. These systems reduce sediment loss from farms; buffer the effects of drought, flood, and other severe weather; sequester carbon; and create biodiversity in our rural landscape.
“The International Year of Soils provides an opportunity for all of us to learn about the critical role soil conservation and improved soil health play in the economic and environmental sustainability of agriculture,” Coverdale said.
Working with the Soil Science Society of America and other partners, NRCS will be showcasing the importance of soil with monthly themes:
  •         January: Soils Sustain Life
  •         February: Soils Support Urban Life
  •         March: Soils Support Agriculture
  •         April: Soils Clean and Capture Water
  •         May: Soils Support Buildings/Infrastructure
  •         June: Soils Support Recreation
  •         July: Soils Are Living
  •         August: Soils Support Health
  •         September: Soils Protect the Natural Environment
  •         October: Soils and Products We Use
  •         November: Soils and Climate
  •        December: Soils, Culture, and People
To listen to the announcement made by Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack yesterday, or for more information about the International Year of Soil, visit the Connecticut NRCS soil health webpage.