Drought has hit the Lower 48 states. According to a recent report released by NOAA, over 55% of the continental United States was in moderate to extreme drought by late June – the most extensive drought in the United States since 1956.
If not mitigated, the effects of this drought could lead to a spiral of decline for farmland. The “Dust Bowl” is a good example. Severe drought in the 1930s, exacerbated by extensive farming of topsoil and poor irrigation practices, led to severe dust storms that stripped farmland of their remaining topsoil and displaced thousands of families. Today, as topsoil deteriorates and staple crop yields plummet, our nation is in dire need of innovative farming practices to stave off another Dust Bowl.
Luckily, our understanding of agricultural processes in 2012 has advanced far beyond the 1930s. With new, and sometimes unusual technology, we can still stem the tide of erosion and crop failure.
Take the TerraDerm Foundation, a non-profit organization that is developing cyanobacteria seed pellets to revitalize arid soils and prevent erosion. TerraDerm is based on the fundamental principle that crops need water and nutrients from the soil to survive, and in turn, the soil itself needs beneficial microbes to rebuild topsoil, detoxify contaminants, and recycle nutrients. Though most US corporate farms use harsh chemical fertilizers and pesticides that destroy this necessary soil bacteria, organic farmers and agricultural scientists are starting to recognize the importance of soils as their own ecosystems.
TerraDerm produces dry poppy-seed sized pellets to deliver a “symbiotic consortium of cyanobacterial algae and other soil microorganisms” to arid lands. These mixtures of microorganisms help fix nitrogen and CO2 into the soil (necessary for plant growth) and help bind the soil and retain moisture, allowing the development of algae, fungi, lichens and eventually seed-bearing plants. TerraDerm’s US patent USH2271 tackles the manufacture of the cyanobacteria mixture through dynamic storage systems and photobioreactors, and their final distribution through crop-dusting airplanes or conventional irrigation systems.
Of course, without water, even the best soil ecosystem can suffer. During severe drought, desalination, water management, and advanced irrigation techniques become necessary to make the best use of scarce water resources. (See our previous post on top desalination companies).
Here, Rain Bird Corporation is a top innovator in the irrigation space. Over the past few months, the company has obtained numerous patents related to adaptive irrigation techniques – irrigation controllers that change water flow based on ambient temperatures, humidity, wind flow, soil moisture, and solar radiation. (See US8200368 “Automatically adjusting irrigation controller with temperature and rainfall sensor,” US8191307 “System and method for harvested water irrigation,” and US8170721 “Automatically adjusting irrigation controller.”) The company’s irrigation controllers use data on plant transpiration and surface evaporation to determine plant water requirements. Then, based on variables like soil moisture and humidity, the Rain Bird system restricts water flow to what is absolutely necessary for a given crop and creates a programmable irrigation schedule. The benefit: farmers can reduce their water losses from evaporation and excessive runoff.
These inventions are just an example of what we can achieve, given a little bit of creative thinking. Whether it is through new erosion prevention techniques or environmentally-friendly pesticides and fertilizers, innovators around the country are coming up with ways to rectify the effects of drought and poor farming practices. We can avoid another ‘Dust Bowl’ – as long as we are willing to forego the status quo.