Alfred Greenlee can determine if a field he farms 30 miles away in Mitchell County needs watering without leaving his south Albany home. A grant through the Flint River Water Planning and Policy Center at Albany State University enables him to use remote sensing technology to boost crop yields and reduce irrigation costs. The technology is giving Greenlee, a Procter and Gamble retiree another tool he will need to grow products efficiently. The grant was approved two years ago.
This month, ASU announced that even more Georgia farmers will benefit from a second round of grant funds. The United States Department of Agriculture recently awarded a $243,544 grant to help farmers in 42 eastern Georgia counties, said Mark Masters, director of the Flint River Water Planning and Policy Center.
The USDA grant, funded by the USDA Office of Advocacy and Outreach, targeted historically underserved producers including African-American and Hispanic farmers. The ASU grant was among 70 awarded nationally in a competitive process.
The proceeds paid for equipment that Greenlee used last year to monitor soil moisture eight and 16 inches below his ripening watermelons as they were watered through a dry summer by an efficient drip irrigation system.
“As a new farmer, I would not be able to purchase that technology,” Greenlee said.
The unit also tracks rainfall and temperature. It uses technology that helps Greenlee predict his crop’s water needs with a program accessible on a personal computer. The technology increases crop productivity, eliminates the cost of pumping unnecessary water, and reduces the number of costly trips to check on distant fields.
Greenlee cited recent news reports that state officials are suspending consideration of new agricultural water withdrawal permits in a 24-county southwest Georgia region to conserve water. “That tells me that even though we sit on top of awfully good aquifers here, we still need to be good stewards of the earth,” said Greenlee.
African -American farmer Henry Troutman, 61, a retired Rochelle educator benefitted from the first USDA grant received by ASU. It helped him hold on to his family’s small Wilcox County farm that has existed for 150 years.
Troutman was also able to make use of demonstration equipment secured by the grant that he feels is vital in the hot south Georgia farming region. Troutman said he often guessed about the field’s irrigation needs until Masters and Calvin Willis, a retired extension agent now working in partnership with ASU and the Golden Triangle Resource and Conservation Development Council, helped him install a new water monitoring system this year.
Masters and Willis took him to farms where the irrigation monitoring equipment was in place and stayed with him as his new system was installed and fully operational. “If it had not been for Mark (Masters) and (Willis), we would have been left out in the cold. We would have still been guessing,” Troutman said.
Greenlee and Troutman are looking forward to the day they can afford technology that will allow them to not only monitor soil conditions, but remotely switch the water on and off at distant fields.
“In a few more crops, we are going to be able to turn it on from a cell phone. They have the technology. It’s not cost efficient for a small farmer like us yet, but we are getting there,” Troutman said.
Masters said the USDA is making a push to reach farmers like Troutman and Greenlee at a time when Georgia’s significant agriculture industry has become even more important in a distressed economy. “Land retention by farmers in this region depends upon careful financial and environmental management, especially among socially disadvantaged farmers. At this time, environmentally oriented programs targeting socially disadvantaged farmers are very limited in the region,” Masters explained in the grant summary that won USDA approval. Masters continued, “We are grateful for the partnerships we have been able to build through this project and look forward to working with even more producers throughout Georgia to promote sound management of our precious natural resources.”