Going with the flow

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For more than a century, water drawn from southern Alberta’s rivers has been the lifeblood of the region’s farms and economy. Now, Dr. Willemijn Appels, Lethbridge College’s first Mueller Applied Research Chair in Irrigation Science, is undertaking research and work to help farmers who rely on irrigation develop even more efficient and productive farms.

“What I’m doing is developing a research program to study and improve water use management on the farm level and at the watershed level to prevent waste,” said Dr. Appels, who joined the college in March. “My hope is that my research results in tools farmers can use to improve their water use efficiency so they are better prepared for the future.”

It would be difficult to overstate the importance of irrigation for southern Alberta farmers and producers. The region is home to approximately 525,000 hectares of irrigated land in the 13 irrigation districts. Two-thirds of all irrigated land in Canada is here in Alberta; more than 70 per cent of that is in the Lethbridge region alone. Overall, irrigation adds an estimated 56,000 jobs and approximately $3.6 billion a year to the provincial GDP and accounts for 20 per cent of the agriculture in Alberta.

“Every single acre we have is irrigated,” said Lloyd Vossebelt (Agriculture Sciences 2011), production manager for Chin Coulee Spud Farms, a family-run specialty crop operation east of Lethbridge. “Without irrigation we can’t grow potatoes, we can’t grow dry beans and we can’t grow canola. If you take that away, the farm just doesn’t exist.”

The current agricultural landscape of the region is in part a product of geography. Unlike other irrigation-dependent areas, southern Alberta’s irrigation water is pulled from a network of rivers and lakes that are part of the massive watershed of the South Saskatchewan River Basin, which stretches from the Rockies to The Pas in Manitoba. This network, along with a long, warm and sunny growing season and good quality soils has helped make the region the agricultural powerhouse it is. Dr. Appels is working to ensure it remains both strong and efficient.

Dr. Appels says her research is focused on how spatial patterns in soil properties such as texture, chemistry and depth affect water infiltration and runoff in fields, patterns that can determine irrigation success. Developing new and practical ways of observing and understanding these patterns will help improve precision irrigation methods.

“There are a lot of theoretical questions out there that matter to day-to-day practitioners,” said Dr. Appels. “By creating research projects that are relevant to farmers, I can tackle those questions, and we can generate knowledge that has a practical application.”

Dr. Appels says these questions also include how to manage the impacts of climate change, which is predicted to lead to longer growing seasons and warmer annual surface temperatures that could have a significant impact on farmers and agricultural production in the area.

“Soil is a dynamic system that’s very vulnerable to disturbances and, as the water input changes if glaciers shrink and the Rockies see more rainfall but less snowfall, we need to think about how we can do more with less water,” said Dr. Appels.

Edith Olson, interim Dean of Lethbridge College’s Centre for Applied Arts and Sciences, added: “By performing irrigation studies on farmers’ cropped land, Dr. Appels will contribute knowledge of practical application to producers. The data she collects will help prepare southern Alberta agriculture for the challenges of climate change, and hence benefit the economy and social network of the region. This aligns perfectly with the mission of Lethbridge College.”

Hailing from the Netherlands, Dr. Appels completed her MSc and PhD degrees in hydrology and soil physics at Wageningen University. She joined the Global Institute for Water Security at the University of Saskatchewan for a post-doctoral fellowship focusing on hydrological processes in reclamation landscapes in the oil sands region. In her 10 months at the college, Dr. Appels has already been busy getting her hands dirty in the field, using sophisticated sensors and computer models to monitor soil dynamics and give insight into how water behaves in the soil under certain conditions.

“Half of my work is out in the field looking for evidence of ponding or drought conditions, inspecting equipment and taking samples to analyze soil moisture,” she said. “The other half is behind the computer interpreting that data, doing modelling and mapping and running ‘what if’ scenarios.”

Beyond the (literal) dirty work, Dr. Appels said the key to her research success depends on working with farmers and the irrigation industry to ensure her data can be applied in a practical way.

“The challenge of an applied research project will be how to bridge the gap between the science and the end user,” she said. “[The science] has to move things forward. In the past there’s been some skepticism about techniques that have been developed to improve irrigation because they require taking some risks. By generating actual numbers, I hope we can take away some of that skepticism and show [farmers] that if you change a certain aspect of your operation, you can see benefits to your practice or your yield.”

Chin Coulee Spud Farms’ Lloyd Vossebelt embodies the shifting mindset of farmers looking for every advantage in an industry where everything from changing weather to government agricultural policy can have a significant impact on an operation. Vossebelt received a Plant and Soil Science diploma from Lethbridge College in 2011 and supplemented that with a university degree in 2013 before bringing his skills to the family farm where he manages irrigation, fertility and crop planning for an operation that produces more than 20,000 tons of potatoes and uses more than a billion litres of water (most of which is absorbed by the water-hungry tubers) every year.

“Farmers are innovative and we’re always trying to find ways to make things work better or a little more efficiently as long as it fits the operation because what works for us might not work for our neighbours,” said Vossebelt. “’Irrigation application technology has drastically changed over the last 50 years. We are getting a lot better at being able to monitor where we’re sitting in terms of how much water is in the soil and what the crop actually needs, and hopefully [Dr. Appels’] research can help with that.”

The Mueller Applied Research Chair in Irrigation Science is a new position made possible by a 2014 donation of $3.1 million from Lloyd and Dorothy Mueller and supplemented by $1.9 million in funding from the college to create the Mueller Irrigation Science program.

“Having a fully-funded research chair will help us build capacity in a specialty field we know from our own research the industry in this region needs,” said Gina Funicelli, Dean of Lethbridge College’s Centre for Applied Research and Innovation. “We hope the success of [Dr. Appels] and the great work she’s doing will be a great model for us to emulate in other areas of strength at the college.”

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