Interview: Erik Schmidt, Deputy Director National Centre for Engineering in Agriculture, University of Southern Queensland

We caught up with Erik Schmidt before his appearance at Irrigation Australia International Conference and Exhibition. Within this article Erik discusses how having a systematic approach to compare irrigation systems and operating scenarios for each field that accounts for local soils, yield expectations, system performance and cost scenarios, provides a useful strategy to help compare options and make informed decisions.

Topic: “A framework for irrigation system replacement – Bundaberg Sugar Case Study

Your presentation will outline a strategy and framework for decision making around replacing irrigation systems. Can you please briefly explain why it’s important to have a strategy and framework in these situations, rather than say just choosing the latest technologies available?

The decision to upgrade or replace an irrigation system is an important and difficult one. Irrigators have many questions, such as: What system shall I select? What is the capital cost, and what will be the operating cost? What production and income will I generate from different systems given system performance? What is the payback? How will it impact my lifestyle?

Having a systematic approach to compare irrigation systems and operating scenarios for each field that accounts for local soils, yield expectations, system performance and cost scenarios, provides a useful strategy to help compare options and make informed decisions.

You see technology as an important decision-support tool. Why is that?

Decisions are complex. Farmers and water managers make complex decisions all the time, despite being time poor. Technologies that integrate data, provide scenarios allowing comparison of alternatives and provide better information, are invaluable to saving time and improving decision making. They also allow a record to be kept of why the decision was made and to support motivation and justification when required.

You are a member of ICID [the International Commission on Irrigation and Drainage] Australian National Committee. Why is this group important? What does this bring to your work? And conversely, what does your work speciality bring to this group?

ICID is the international body seeking to improve water and land management and productivity through irrigation. The Australian National Committee has a close relationship with ICID and supports this international focus by sharing information, supporting and contributing to ICID programs, participating in events and linking Australian irrigation industry to the international forum. This is important as there are many learnings that flow in both directions. We look forward to host the 2020 ICID international conference in Sydney alongside the Irrigation Australia International Conference and Exhibition.

You’re co-leader of the Research Centre with 50+ engineering and scientific staff. Smart technologies, robotics and automation are just some areas of your work. How important are these in irrigation now and into the future?

Irrigation and water management are key to successful farming. Water is a scarce resource, pumping costs are escalating and irrigation labour and time can be demanding depending on choice of system. There have been significant advances in improving irrigation practice in Australia over the past 20 years. The next wave of improvement is likely to be around precision and smart automated systems. This includes using sensors to determine where and how  much to irrigate, real-time decision-support tools to optimise application, and control systems to variably apply water through space and time to precisely meet crop water requirements. All irrigation systems – surface, micro/trickle, pressurised sprinkler – can be improved through smart automated irrigation, and we are starting to see a wave of adoption of these smart automated systems across our industries. This is becoming a game changer for many farmers and irrigators.

What is your longer-term view of the irrigation industry and what will be its greatest challenge?

There is continued pressure to increase water productivity. Economic, social and environmental pressures will continue to grow. Many areas of the irrigation sector have demonstrated great innovation through adopting improved management practices and technologies. This will become a competitive advantage. One often hears farmers say they are “water managers”, since this is the area that most impacts profitability. New research, such as through the national program on Smarter Irrigation For Profit is helping keep Australian irrigation at the leading edge. A key challenge will be to continually innovate and adopt new ideas, technology and knowledge.

Where do you think irrigation is headed in the next 5 to 10 years? What will influence and impact it?

Irrigation generally has a bright future – if it continues to adapt and innovate along the lines of what I’ve spoken about above. Local conditions, of course, drive specifics for each industry and region.  More food and fabric has to be produced with less input. Water productivity will be paramount.

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