This article by Larry Chesney is reprinted with permission from the spring 2012 edition of South Carolina Farmer, the magazine of the S.C. Farm Bureau Federation.
Ever since Clemson Agricultural College was established in 1889, it has held true to the wishes of its namesake, Thomas Clemson. In his will, the transplanted Philadelphian bequeathed the Fort Hill Plantation, along with a large sum of money, to create an institution where South Carolina’s young people could learn the science of agriculture as well as the mechanical arts.
Today through its Experiment Station, Clemson University is involved in state, national and international projects ranging from seed development and water conservation to teaching improved farming practices in Third World countries.
Debbie Dalhouse, communications director for Clemson Public Service and Agriculture, explains that the term “station” is the word used by Australians for a farm or ranch.
“Today every land-grant college in America has a ‘station,’” Dalhouse says. “It’s the agriculture and forestry research arm of the school.
“Our station includes five research and education centers across South Carolina. Each is in a different soil and climate region, so we can test production methods that are specific to particular areas.”
At the Edisto Center near Blackville, Clemson researchers are working on ways to improve crop yield while increasing water-use efficiency. There’s a fine line between under-watering and over-watering, and either can have a detrimental effect on plants. Gilbert Miller, Clemson Extension area vegetable specialist, says it’s vital to understand soil differences and how these dissimilarities influence water management.
“Sensor-based irrigation can help growers control costs and produce higher quality crops,” Miller says. By placing remotely monitored sensors directly into the soil at strategic locations on the farm, growers can cut irrigation and fertilizer costs by applying the precise amount of water needed and not washing the nutrients below the root zone.”
He goes on to say that, while sensor-based irrigation is applicable to many types of growing operations, vegetable farmers find it especially helpful.
“Whereas row crops might be irrigated every other day, every couple of days, or even once a week,” he says, “vegetable production is different. Especially under plasticulture where they’re using the black plastic mulch and drip irrigation, the vegetable roots are relatively shallow – within the top 30 centimeters.
“Because their growth is of a short duration compared to soybeans, cotton or corn, and so much of the fruit is composed of water, if it goes into any type of drought stress during that critical phase, it really hurts tremendously.”
Miller says that vegetable growers using drip irrigation may water up to four times per day, and usually err on the side of overwatering. The new sensor technology can provide up-to-the-minute information on soil moisture, as well as soil salinity to aid these growers in making certain they are “on the money” with their irrigation.
“What’s so great about these sensors,” Miller says, “is that they’re recording real-time data that you can get on your computer every 10 or 15 minutes. As your soil moisture decreases, you can have a trigger set point that automatically sets off an irrigation cycle.
“The goal is to only water when you reach that trigger set point, and to have a short enough irrigation cycle so that the water and nutrients don’t go below the root system.”
Along with their work at the Edisto Research and Education Center, Miller and his team have set up two satellite farms where sensor-based irrigation is being used in a commercial setting.
Results at the Edisto center have been impressive, explains Miller. “In one study, we used 47 percent less water with the sensor-based irrigation, but yet our yield was as much as 22 to 35 percent greater.”
If you’d like to see the sensor process firsthand, the Edisto Research And Education Center will be having a field day on July 12. To find out more, clemson.edu/edisto/.
While wise watering is a key element of successful farming, Chris Ray, executive director the South Carolina Crop Improvement Association and a Clemson staff member, believes harvesting good crops on a steady basis really boils down to planting the best seeds.
“The mission of the Association is to cooperate with Clemson University, USDA and other agricultural agencies in developing, testing, producing and distributing superior strains and varieties of planting stock,” Ray says.
One of the key initiatives of the association and Clemson research has been the development of new strains of soybeans – the largest crop-per-acre in South Carolina.
Selecting the right soybean variety is the most important production decision farmers make each year. The general characteristics farmers look for include yield potential, disease resistance, planting date, maturity and drought tolerance. Not only does the geographic area effect the selection, different fields on the same farm can require a different seed for optimum production. By getting certified seeds such as those offered through the association, farmers are guaranteed varietal purity, which ensures predictable performance.
Peaches, another South Carolina farming staple, have also received a lot of attention.
“Starting around 1994,” Ray says, “we began a program to improve the health of peach orchards in South Carolina and across the Southeast.”
The result was the Guardian peach rootstock and, according to Ray, it has been a success.
“The rootstock is basically the bottom portion of the plant,” he explains. “You graft a portion from another plant to the top. This top produces the fruit while the guardian rootstock provides resistance to peach tree shortlife.”
Shortlife causes the sudden death and collapse of young peach trees and can be devastating to a peach grower. Clemson’s guardian peach rootstock is the only one in the world that’s resistant to the disease.
“Currently about 90 percent of the peach trees in the Southeast are ‘budded’ on this rootstock,” Ray says.
Far away from the friendly confines of the Palmetto State, Clemson is reaching out to farmers in war-torn Afghanistan.
Paul M. “Mac” Horton, Ph.D., director and professor emeritus of the Clemson Institute for Economic & Community Development & Sandhill Research and Education Center, has been heavily involved in the Afghanistan project.
“After 40 years of continuous war,” Horton says, “Afghanistan’s agricultural system has been devastated. Now their farming practices resemble ours from over a century ago. The fact that only 15 percent of the country is arable, and 3 to 6 inches of rain per year is average, those just add to the challenges.”
Horton, a former Guardsman, was unable to share information on time and location of the Afghan projects but said they have been ongoing for several years. “A lot of other states have been participating for some time,” he said. “Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas to name a few.”
The ag team is made up mostly of South Carolina National Guardsmen who have some agricultural background,” Horton said. “They’ve already been over there on a standard military deployment and witnessed firsthand the conditions there. They’ve volunteered to return to help these people make the most of their very limited resources.”
These volunteers receive additional training from Clemson faculty members as well Clemson Extension Service and research personnel. Horton also says that because South Carolina’s land and weather are so different from Afghanistan, Clemson brings in dry land experts from such states as New Mexico and Texas to help with training.
“A major part of the population of Afghanistan living outside major developed areas,” Dr. Horton says, “is involved in subsistence agriculture. Its desperate agriculture and they have very little margin for error.
“Most don’t have the contemporary conveniences we have, like electricity, modern gas, up-to-date appliances and tools. So when these Guardsmen introduce change, it’s got to be a change that is doable using the current Afghan infrastructure.”
“Another challenge,” he says, “is that you’re dealing with a predominately illiterate population. So the communication aspects become interesting. However, there has been some good success in using such things as picture books to illustrate lessons.
“In order for us to be successful, our people have to establish a whole new mindset to understand their way of doing things. Our agricultural system operates under such an advanced level of science and technology, that we literally have to go back to the mid-19th century and think like an 1850s farmer, in terms of what is possible.”
When asked what was on the drawing board at the experiment station, Dalhouse says they are excited about their new water resources research.
“It’s called the Intelligent River,” she says, “and it involves ecologists, foresters and computer scientists all working together to collect water quality data remotely. The information is then beamed up to a satellite and down to Clemson’s Super Computer Center.
“That information is sent every 60 seconds, which is as close to real-time as you can get. Especially when you consider that before, people were required to go out and collect hand samples of river water, then bring them back to the lab to analyze. We were always dealing with data that was outdated.”
She said the Intelligent River team is working with other Clemson researchers to develop additional applications of the sensors for agriculture. Gilbert Miller’s sensor-based irrigation project is just one example.
At Clemson, you won’t find research done just for “research sake.” Every project begins with a clear objective to improve agriculture productivity and ultimately lead to a higher standard of living.