Wider Horizons

From the climate-controlled confines of Lethbridge College’s newest building, Dr. Willemijn Appels has a window into a normally hidden world of soil and water. In this industrial-looking space, there’s little sunshine, no wind aside from the building’s ventilation system and not a gopher hole to be found. But there are tonnes of southern Alberta top soil and tender growth of one of the province’s most common crops, alfalfa – all of which are essential aspects of research that could change the way crops are grown around the world.

From the Innovation Space in the year-old Trades, Technologies and Innovation Facility, Appels, a hydrologist and soil physicist, is creating an almost perfectly controlled environment for her research on subsurface drip irrigation (SDI). Work began in January to construct three raised, three-by-six-metre beds nearly a metre deep. Each is filled with top soil donated from farmers — Grassy Lake sand, Lomond loam and Coaldale clay. Appels and industry partner Southern Irrigation designed the wooden boxes, which college staff built. Plexiglas sections offer a side view of the soil, roots and moisture.

Appels and her team are studying subsurface drip irrigation to deliver water and, eventually, nutrients directly to the alfalfa’s root zone and to understand how the water moves in different soil types. The one-year research project has support from Southern Irrigation, and funding from a $50,000 Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) Applied Research and Development grant, and another $20,000 from the Regional Innovation Network of Southern Alberta.

Bringing the farm indoors gives Appels control over weather, pests and other variables. She can work year-round and can push her crops to extremes, something she can’t do in a field with a farm’s prosperity hanging in the balance. While SDI is relatively new to southern Alberta, it has existed for decades in countries with water scarcity, and its main benefit is efficiency.

"It's not just research in a lab. It's something of practical value." - Marc Jongerden, installation manager with Southern Irrigation

But because SDI happens entirely out of sight, it can feel like a leap of faith for farmers who are accustomed to seeing pivots deliver water in an obvious spray. That’s why Appels’ research is so important, says Marc Jongerden, installation manager with Southern Irrigation, the college’s partner in this endeavour. “This (research) is teaching and training growers to really know their soils and how their soils work with a totally different way of irrigation,” he says.

Appels notes that farmers who adopt SDI will have a learning curve, but she hopes her work helps. “The more complex the irrigation system, the more complex the water management,” says Appels, who is entering her third year as Lethbridge College’s Mueller Applied Research Chair in Irrigation Science, a position made possible by a $3.1-million gift from Lloyd and Dorothy Mueller.

Doug Stanko, who donated the soil labelled “Lomond loam,” has a reputation as an early adopter of new methods, and he has subsurface irrigation on part of his land. When he was approached about donating some of his soil, he was briefed on the research project, but that still didn’t prepare him for what he saw when he first visited the college. “I was so impressed,” Stanko says. “This is a really good idea.’ ” He says the idea of SDI made sense intuitively because it focuses water where it’s needed and it encourages deeper root growth, away from potential heat stress.

Stanko says he also appreciated Appels’ approachable manner — she talks with and listens to farmers about their needs and issues. That was also Jongerden’s experience. In Appels and Lethbridge College, the irrigation company found an open partner interested in improving the practice of farming. “We believe in this and we know this will be one of the systems for the future,” Jongerden says. “We believe in it for water usage, to spread the water more efficiently and to open up more acres.”

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