EQIP(ment) – An Irrigation Story

by Gary Mount

I’ve said it before — each time I think that I know what I’m doing in farming, something new and unexpected comes along to surprise me.

The 2002 growing season is bringing new challenges for farmers in our area. By this I mean the drought. Many New Jersey farmers are wondering if we face another summer like that of 1999, one of the driest ever. For me, 1999 served as a wake up call. It made me realize that I had better be ready to adequately water my crops — and to do so with the smallest amount of water possible.

The problems of drought are self evident for all farms — no water equals no crop production and no income. Drought compounds the problem for a fruit grower. Not only does drought reduce the amount of fruit, but it reduces fruit size and quality. Also, most fruit bearing plants develop flower buds for the next year at the same time fruit is growing for the present year. This means the affects of a drought can be seen over several years. Finally, is some areas of low rainfall and/or very sandy soil, lack of rain can kill the fruit tree. Although my front lawn at the farm may turn brown and look dead during a drought, it is really just dormant and comes back when it rains again. Fruit trees don’t.

Enough about the problems. What are the solutions? In 1980, Pam and I purchased a farm on Van Kirk Road and planted apples and raspberries. That is where we now have our pick-your-own apple orchards. I installed trickle irrigation in this location and, as a result, have watered the farm very efficiently over the years. Drip irrigation delivers water slowly and in small amounts, right at ground level. Very little is lost to evaporation or runoff. My trees and raspberries have survived several dry years. At that time, my irrigation system was state of the art.

That was 22 years ago. Funny how things change. After my dry summer of 1999 wake up call, I started to think about ways to improve my system. Maybe there were ways to water the trees better and use water more efficiently. Maybe there were people out there who knew more than I did about irrigation (although I hate to admit it).

This past year, I have worked with a federal/state conservation program known as EQIP, which is designed to improve the environmental quality of farming enterprises. Experts were available to review my new plans, and I rehabilitated my irrigation system on Van Kirk Road during the summer of 2001. I installed new piping to deliver water to each section of the orchard, new control valves in each section, and modern tubing that releases water evenly all along each row. These improvements have made a tremendous difference. It seems that more evenly controlled watering does not have to be turned on for as long a period. Trees at the beginning of the row do not have to be over-watered in order for the ones at the end of the row to get enough. New sensors buried in the orchard tell me exactly when the soil is moist enough. And best of all, I only have to run the system about half as long as I did before!

I wouldn’t have believed it, but then each time I think I know what I’m doing, something new comes along.