Lessons Learned: New Irrigation Technique Saves More Than Water By Meghan Boyer

For the past 10 years, Rick Brown, co-owner of Riverview Flower Farm, Riverview, Fla., used drip tape with 2-inch emitter spacing to irrigate his crops. Instead of laying the tape directly on top of the soil surface, as local farmers do, Brown ran it across the tops of his 1-gal. containers, which he sets on the ground. The method helped keep pots upright and delivered a precise amount of water to each pot, which minimized water waste and allowed accurate chemical delivery.

Brown feels a main benefit of drip tape is the lack of overhead irrigation, which can affect spray chemical applications. "When you spray [and use drip tape], your chemicals don't wash off," he explained. "You can spray anytime because you never have an issue where you've just irrigated." Brown found he could spray even while irrigating, and the treatment wouldn't wash off.

Despite the many benefits Brown saw, the drip tape did not allow for pot-spacing flexibility: The pre-spaced holes meant he was unable to increase or decrease the spacing. "They're set so they're a foot apart, each tape is, so you can't really change the spacing, but you can increase the density somewhat. So that is a limiting factor," he said.

Brown made the decision to switch from drip tape to capillary mats, specifically the Netafim DripMat Watering System, which has many of the same benefits Brown saw in the drip tape (such as no overhead irrigation).

The DripMat is a 3-layer system consisting of ground cover, non-woven geotextile and poly plastic film. The system is designed to work with any pot that has bottom drainage holes; it can be used inside or out on 1- to 6-percent sloped areas. Each mat has built-in dripperlines down both sides. These lines are intended to distribute water evenly down the length of the mat; the central layer moves water across the mat width. After each irrigation, the system drains.

With DripMats, Brown finds that after he waters, the excess water sheds away. He noticed that the mat never really dries, and yet there is not a continual watering process. He also feels the mats use less water than the drip tape: "Our tests how it's efficient in using just the water needed, and any other water just stays in the mat or a little bit of surplus runs off," he explained. Brown and his crew are currently in the process of trying to calculate just how much surplus there is; he already feels that the mats produce a greater savings than the drip tape.

One of the main reasons Brown opted for capillary mats is because they can be driven on — and this allows him to use a pot-spacing fork. The fork can space Brown's 1-gal. containers however he sees fit; the capillary mats do not dictate the spacing. For some crops, this means he will be able to place pots tighter and increase production.

Being able to use a spacing fork will also mean labor savings for Riverview: Employees will no longer have to space pots by hand and run drip tape over them. "You can set it down with the machine, pick it up with the machine, space it with the machine and harvest it with the machine. The savings are going to be enormous," Brown said. "Four years ago, Europe was faced with the same labor dollars that we're faced with now, so they had to automate. And now it's our turn."

The mats are easy for Brown and his crew to use, but they require some maintenance: They need to be pressure washed before every new crop. "You have to sweep it and clean it," Brown said. He expects to get seven years out of the mats with proper maintenance. For Brown, the price per square foot and maintenance of the mats are worth the effort: "If you can get one more turn or one more crop per year, you get it back," he said.

Brown sees Riverview Flower Farm as being totally automated with pot forks within a few years. The first step is putting 5 acres of mats in protected, greenhouse-type areas, "so we can take advantage of an extra turn of a crop in the winter with a higher density and learn to use the mat as efficiently as we can over the next two years before we get totally automated," he said.

Overall, the experience of switching from drip tape to the Netafim DripMat Watering System was better than Brown expected, and the business benefits — no overhead irrigation, water and labor savings, and increased automation — are numerous. "Once you do it, you say, 'Holy cow, why haven't I done this before?'" he said. "It's just so simple."

"Lessons Learned" is one of the new GPN features that will help you go about your job more efficiently. Each month, this section will present case studies that highlight different growers' challenges and how they handled them. By sharing growers' difficulties as well as their successes, we hope you will be able to learn even more from each other. Remember, a solution you discovered last year may be able to help countless growers dealing with the same challenge right now.

Specifically, each case study will focus on a difficulty a single grower or company had, how the grower addressed and resolved the problem, and how the business benefited. Because we want stories that come from you, GPN is asking for case study stories for consideration and possible inclusion in future issues. Please send your stories and suggestions to Meghan Boyer at [email protected] suggesting a case study for consideration, please include both the challenge and solution, detailing any products or purchases that made it necessary, in addition to the name and location of the specific grower involved.

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Meghan Boyer

Meghan Boyer is associate editor of GPN. She can be reached at [email protected] or (847) 391-1013.

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