PATERSON -- Steven Berg already can control irrigation pivots on his fields near Paterson using his cellphone or computer.
But Berg Farms is taking that a step further, experimenting with technology that could allow farmers to grow crops more efficiently and profitably while conserving energy and water.
It is one of three farms in Washington, Oregon and Idaho participating in a pilot project by Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance, a nonprofit supported by Northwest utilities such as the Bonneville Power Association. On Thursday, growers toured the farm to check out the new project.
Farmers already are using soil probes, soil mapping, weather data and infrared photos of fields to make decisions about irrigation, said Geoff Wickes, Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance emerging technologies product manager.
But while these tools are valuable, they aren't working as well as one system, said Lori Rhodig, the nonprofit's initiative manager. And farmers have to compile the data themselves instead of having it in one interface, said Charles Hillyer, Oregon State University assistant professor for senior research. That's why part of the project is working on one interface.
Agriculture represents about 5 percent of the energy usage in the Northwest, Wickes said. The Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance aims to increase energy efficiency with irrigation systems, which also should decrease water use.
The goal is to see 20 percent in energy savings, with lower energy use and reduced operating costs. And Rhodig said the organization may see the saved water used on additional acres, increasing the opportunity for profit.
The effort ties into a new program being created by Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association, the Benton and Franklin conservation districts and the state Department of Ecology. Farmers who reduce water consumption through irrigation water management practices get to apply half of the saved water to new acres and leave the other half in the river, benefiting agriculture and the environment.
The goal is to have a program that will spit out a water prescription for a field based on all of the data and the crop being grown, Hillyer said. That is a suggestion for growers to take into consideration when deciding how to water.
After all, Wickes said, it's hard to beat a farmer's knowledge of his own fields.
Hillyer said it may turn out to be more beneficial for farmers to water enough for slightly less than the maximum yield. But that takes precision.
Wickes said the program also is testing out a variable-rate irrigation system on a circle at Berg Farms based on soil and weather data. That system allows different amounts of water to be applied to different parts of the field at the same time.
Hillyer said the system used the variable-rate irrigation system to lower water use to about 80 percent of what the Bergs were using and lower -- down to no water -- on small parts of an alfalfa field.
So far, what the alliance has found is there was no statistical yield difference when water use was decreased by 20 percent, he said.
The pilot program started this year and is in preliminary stages. Wickes said parts of it didn't get going on Berg Farms' alfalfa field until July and August.
Nicole Berg of Berg Farms said the start of the pilot was a little tough, similar to changing from one computer system to another.
Wickes expects it to continue for at least another year -- and up to four more. He said the nonprofit is looking for three more farms willing to participate in the study.
Depending on the results, Nicole Berg said the farm might consider using it on other circles if it makes business sense.
-- Kristi Pihl: 582-1512; firstname.lastname@example.org