New innovations in automated technologies underline successful Irrigation conference in Alexandra

Over four-hundred representatives from various sectors of the agricultural and environmental communities converged on Dunstan High School in Alexandra last week to attend the 2018 Irrigation New Zealand Conference and Expo.

The event showcased a range of cutting-edge technologies designed for the betterment of irrigation in terms of water management, economic efficiency and the reduction of environmental effects, and also featured talks on a range of topics regarding the current state of irrigation and agriculture in New Zealand.  

Given the recent intensity of debates over the effects of irrigation in this country, the expo proved a source of welcome assurance that a range of strategies are being explored to improve the way the agricultural sector applies and distributes water.

Irrigation NZ chief executive Andrew Curtis was pleased with the success of the conference, and says the reality of fully automated irrigation is not far from being realised:

“The conference went really, really well; lots of positive feedback, which is always good. The focus was on where we’re going in the automation space, so looking at lots more decision support tools which help with when to irrigate and also show things like crop yields and disease. Then from there looking at how that integrates into the actual control systems as well. So, we’re not far away from having autonomous irrigation systems- give it another three or four years and we’ll be there.”

More than fifty-five exhibitors had their innovations on display at the expo, each giving quickfire presentations across three ‘Smart Showcase’ Events.

 Among the speakers was Animation Research Ltd owner Ian Taylor, who talked of the importance of data and technology in making irrigation more efficient:

“Water is one of the most valuable resources. How can [farmers] manage it more efficiently and how are they held accountable for ways to manage it? Technology has the tools that will allow us to do that."

Also in attendance was Nicky Hislop, now in her fifth year on the Irrigation NZ board, who says the event showed a “stunning example of land diversity under irrigation and the importance of irrigation to the community”.

She opened the Conference on Tuesday by saying that Central Otago truly epitomised the importance of water and irrigation for the benefit of the wider community.

“Irrigation underpins not only agriculture, but also numerous tourism activities as well as local businesses in town. It provides the region with resilience which is so important in such a drought prone area.”

For Hislop, it is essential that having now taken several steps in the right direction, those In charge of running and managing irrigation in New Zealand must be open and communicative about the work going towards making it as environmentally friendly as possible:

“It is important” she said, “that now going forward we [irrigators] better articulate all the actions that we’ve been doing and must continue to do to change our environmental footprint and improve water quality.”

Key in achieving that reduced environmental footprint are the various technologies being worked on by irrigation users around the world, many of which were on display in Alexandra, and showed that exciting times were on the horizon for irrigation, according to Hislop:

“There is a lot of exciting stuff in terms of technology that we can begin to incorporate into our irrigation systems so that we are more careful with our water use and can record really accurately where our water goes and how we distribute it.”  

Dr Stuart Styles, water management expert from the Irrigation Training and Research Centre at Cal Poly State University, gave a talk on automated irrigation systems, having recently toured New Zealand looking at how our irrigation systems compare to those in California.

He saw a lot of similarity between New Zealand and California:

“New Zealand has very modernised irrigation systems and even have some features I haven’t seen in California.”

Dr Styles saw that there was opportunity for New Zealand to modernise more systems by replacing open races with piped systems. In California, growers had also experimented with their fertiliser management to obtain improved crop yields which New Zealand could learn from.

Overall, he concluded that irrigation systems and practices in New Zealand were at the upper end of the performance spectrum, undoubtedly an encouraging assessment for those who have fought hard over the last decade to make irrigation the stable backbone of our agricultural industry.