In first, Israeli drip irrigation to water California’s rice

Ben-Gurion University and Netafim are teaming up with a large ranch to help the state beat its drought

Rice field (Pixabay)
Rice field (Pixabay)

Ben-Gurion University is joining with drip-irrigation pioneer Netafim to help increase the output of rice in parched California.

In a gala announcement at the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) in Washington Monday, Kyriakos Tsakopoulos, president, principal and chief executive officer of Conaway Preservation Group, said that the Israeli-developed technology could be a breakthrough in the development of a rice industry in arid areas like California.

“We believe this initiative represents the first use of drip irrigation in the US for a rice crop,” he said. “We couldn’t ask for better partners.”

The Conaway Preservation Group is the group responsible for the Conaway Ranch, located in Yolo County, California, east of Sacramento – normally one of the richest and most productive farming areas in the world. The county, for example, is the biggest yielder of tomatoes for canning in California, a state that is responsible for 90% of the canned and processed tomato production in the United States and 35% worldwide.

It, and the surrounding counties, is also the home of much of the state’s production of walnuts, almonds, grapes, and other crops. And the county is a major producer of rice.

Many of the crops grown in the area require a great deal of water – with rice among the thirstiest. But in recent years, California’s ongoing drought has begun to threaten crop production.

The 17,000-acre Conaway Ranch sees itself as a bulwark against the excess use of natural resources by local farmers, preserving one of the largest tracts of wetlands in the western United States.

It’s a place that has historically implemented new strategies and technologies to improve the environment and preserve an ecosystem that is home to hundreds of species of birds and mammals, including the California grizzly bear, tulle elk, and pronghorn antelope – all species that, once plentiful, are now endangered.

Innovation was what impelled the Conaway Ranch to work with a team from Ben-Gurion University, said Bryce Lundberg, vice president of agriculture for Lundberg Family Farms, which is one of the world’s largest producers of organic rice, and one of about 25 farmers who raise rice at the ranch.

“As a partner in this cutting-edge project, we are hopeful that this concept could provide farmers with a revolutionary form of rice production not only in California, but wherever rice is grown worldwide.”

A sugar cane project in Peru using Netafim drip irrigation systems (Photo credit: Courtesy Netafim)
A sugar cane project in Peru using Netafim drip irrigation systems (Photo credit: Courtesy Netafim)

Netafim is the veteran Israeli firm that over four decades ago pioneered the drip irrigation revolution, developing a system that cuts water use by as much as three quarters while ensuring that crops get the water they need to thrive. Since then, the company has widely expanded its offerings to include sprinklers, pipes, irrigation equipment, agricultural machinery, and more, many of them equipped with sensors that can read temperature, humidity, nutrient levels in the soil, whether a plant needs water, and other important data.

The systems are controlled by software run from a server communicating with sensors in the field wirelessly, with the software providing specific instructions to each part of the system as to how much water should be dispensed, and the optimal time for that dispensing.

Today, Netafim drip-irrigation systems are used around the world, but generally not for rice, which farmers generally water using traditional furrow-flooding method, where water is just dumped on rice plants. That’s a luxury California can’t afford today, however, necessitating a turn toward new watering strategies.

Over the past 18 months, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev’s Prof. Eilon Adar has visited several times to meet with California legislators and water resource officials, discussing the drip-irrigation based strategies that Israel has employed to preserve water resources. For this project, Conaway Ranch executives are leveraging the expertise of Adar, who is one of Israel’s leading water experts and former director of the Zuckerberg Institute at BGU’s Jacob Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research.

In meetings and at public forums, Adar has highlighted ways Israel is closing the gap between water supply and demand, including improving irrigation efficiency, expanding wastewater reclamation and reuse, and engineering drought-tolerant crops.

“After evaluating a number of options to enhance water use efficiency, Conaway Ranch decided to move forward with a subsurface drip irrigation pilot project on a 50- to 100-acre area for rice,” Adar explains.

“We’ve outlined the testing procedures necessary to maximize success, based on experience growing a variety of crops in arid climates using sub-surface drip irrigation. The Zuckerberg Institute is pleased to be playing a leading role, providing knowledge and expertise to help California farmers reduce their water consumption.”

Netafim USA agronomists have conducted a few similar rice crop trials in other parts of the world. Installation of the system and the first plantings at Conaway Ranch are scheduled for completion this spring. Based on results from previous projects, this trial is expected to produce an improvement in yield, while reducing water use, the company said.

Tsakopoulos hopes that the Israeli technology will not only increase yields at the the Conaway Ranch, but pave the way for other farmers to make use of new technology to save water while increasing output.

“We fully believe that Conaway Ranch and farmers have a responsibility to conserve water. We need to continue to conduct research and develop methods to use the water most efficiently for crops, while also conserving critical wildlife resources,” he said, adding that “this effort could serve as a model for other farms and potentially save hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of water in California if widely adopted.”

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