Rainwater, IPhone App Help Thirsty California Farms California farmers grow most of the nation's fruit, nuts and vegetables. While some farmers there are fighting over dwindling water resources, others are reducing water use via technology and returning to natural rain as a water source for their crops.
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Rainwater, IPhone App Help Thirsty California Farms

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Rainwater, IPhone App Help Thirsty California Farms

Rainwater, IPhone App Help Thirsty California Farms

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Farmers here in California grow many of the vegetables, fruit and nuts that the whole country eats, so it's a concern for everyone that we're in the midst of a multiyear drought. Some farmers have been yanking out water-intensive crops and planting less thirsty ones. They're also resurrecting some old ways of farming while discovering new technologies.

Sasha Khokha of member station KQED has the latest of our stories on water and the West.

SASHA KHOKHA: The organic apple orchards on Dan Lehrer's farm near the Northern California coast look almost abandoned. Knee-high weeds and grasses grow up under rows of scraggly trees. This used to be a lush green orchard until one day five years ago. That's when Lehrer and his wife, Joanne Krueger, went to turn on the main valve to the well that irrigated these trees.

Mr. DAN LEHRER (Farmer): Nothing happened. No water came out. Somehow, somewhere, there's a big fat break in the underground pipes that crisscross the orchard.

KHOKHA: It was too expensive to fix the pipes, so they turned the well off and waited.

Mr. LEHRER: We started losing these trees because the roots are very shallow and they've been used to being watered like baby lettuces, and all of the sudden they weren't getting that water.

KHOKHA: But amazingly most of the trees survived and began producing apples that were not like the ones before. Regulars at the farmers market clamored for them.

Mr. LEHRER: Our customers just went nuts.

Ms. JOANNE KRUEGER (Farmer): The trees are stressed but the fruit is beautiful. They're must smaller than a grocery store apple. They are denser, they are crisper, they have a good sweet/tart balance.

KHOKHA: So, now the couple's also growing new trees of heirloom apples and experimenting with terracing the hillside to best capture the 30 inches of rainfall they get a year.

Other farmers along the California coast, like tomato growers and winemakers are also rediscovering the practice of dry farming using only natural rainfall. That used to be the norm in the Napa Valley before the 1960s when overhead sprinklers were introduced.

Now, go a few hundred miles southeast of northern California. Farmers there are using some very different water-saving strategies.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. ZACH SHEELY (Farmer, Opera Singer): (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

KHOKHA: No, Zach Sheely isn't serenading his plants to make them grow better. The 27-year-old is a part-time opera singer and farmer. He can take a break from his opera lesson to check on his tomato and pistachio fields from his iPhone perched on the grand piano.

Mr. SHEELY: And I just click charts and look at the soil moisture content, and we just turned on water today.

KHOKHA: So, does it look good?

Mr. SHEELY: It looks good. Looks just like we wanted it to.

KHOKHA: Now, Sheely can relax and focus on his singing.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. SHEELY: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

KHOKHA: His family farm's 10,000 acres is part of California's Central Valley, where it only rains about seven inches a year. And this year, federal water deliveries to many farmers here were cut to the lowest levels ever. So, Zach Sheely has turned to advanced technology for help. And here's how it works:

(Soundbite of banging)

KHOKHA: Out in his pistachio orchards, workers hammer a metal pipe into the ground to dig a hole next to a young tree.

Mr. MATT ANGEL (PureSense): Right when you get to the end, it always gets really tough, doesn't it?

KHOKHA: Matt Angel works for PureSense, an irrigation software company. He's putting in a special electronic sensor next to the drip irrigation line.

Mr. ANGEL: So, as that irrigation system comes on, you can see exactly how the water moves through the soil. You can actually see the plant taking up the water as it extracts water from each level.

KHOKHA: Every 15 minutes, a solar-powered transmitting station will send information from multiple sensors, along with weather data, to a centralized computer. Checking the data on his iPhone, Zach Sheely can see just when his plants have enough water.

Mr. SHEELY: What technology has allowed us to do is to be more efficient with our time, our money and our resources.

KHOKHA: But it's not cheap. Each transmitting station costs $5,000, and the Sheelys so far has about 20 of them. They've helped shorten watering time, stressing the plants just enough so they produce healthy fruit.

Mr. SHEELY: We're watering so that we put enough water on but not too much. You put too much water on, they kind of go through a dormancy phase and actually slows the growth. And if you put too little on, it also slows the growth. So, we want to stay right in that sweet spot of growth.

KHOKHA: Using the sensors, Sheely's been able to increase his tomato yields with less water. The high-tech sensors are just one tool farmers are using to save water in this dry valley. Many have converted to drip irrigation. There are also automated micro-sprinklers and systems that produce large water droplets, which cut down on wind drift.

Mr. PETER GLEICK (Director, Pacific Institute): The agriculture of the 20th century isn't the agricultural community that we're going to want in the 21st century.

KHOKHA: Peter Gleick directs the Pacific Institute, a think-tank focused on water. He says California farmers are more efficient than 20 years ago but still not saving nearly as much water as they could be.

Mr. GLEICK: And those farmers that are innovative and flexible and smart and efficient are the ones that are going to survive. And the other farmers are going to suffer and they're going to moan and they're going to potentially go out of business.

KHOKHA: And as technology keeps improving, it may also mean that a younger generation of tech-savvy farmers, like Zach Sheely, can stay down on the farm -at least in the virtual sense.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. SHEELY: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

KHOKHA: For NPR News, I'm Sasha Khokha.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. SHEELY: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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