In Texas, 2022 was one of the driest years on record. With failed crops, low yields for farmers and diminished grazing for cattle, the Texas Department of Agriculture identified climate change as a potential threat to the state’s food supply.
Smallholder farmers, particularly those in arid and drought-prone regions, struggle to manage their farms because they lack access to guidance on how much water to use for specific crops to ensure a good yield.
“We’re in hills, so some areas need less water, and some areas need more,” said David Chapin, a farmer and IBMer in Lampasas, Texas, that has been helping IBM test water management solutions. “I don’t really know which areas I’m overwatering, and which areas I’m underwatering, so I just take a chance and make adjustments by eye. That’s not always the best way to do it. I need a more scientific approach.”
That’s where digital agriculture comes in.
Developing a solution for real-world impact
What if there was a tool that could recommend when and how much farmers should water their crops, resulting in a reduction in input costs, improved yields and a reduction of polluting runoff? With IBM and Texas A&M AgriLife’s partnership through the IBM Sustainability Accelerator, a pro bono social impact program, the development of such a tool is well underway.
IBM and Texas A&M AgriLife are working together to help farmers receive insights for water usage, which can further crop yield increases while decreasing economic and environmental costs. Texas A&M AgriLife and IBM will deploy and scale Liquid Prep, a tech solution that provides “when to water” decision support to farmers, in arid regions of the United States.
Using data to inform crop management strategies
To generate high-quality insights for farmers, it takes huge quantities of data from various sources.
The tool works by placing low-cost sensors developed by IBMers into the soil to record moisture and temperature levels, which are then uploaded to the IBM Cloud.
The Liquid Prep app will combine weather forecast data from the IBM Environmental Intelligence Suite, crop-specific information from the Soil & Water Assessment Tool (SWAT) (which is co-managed by Texas A&M AgriLife and the United States Department of Agriculture), and real-time soil moisture data from the new sensors. The app will analyze the combined data using artificial intelligence to provide farmers with recommendations on when and how much to water via a smartphone app.
“Different soil has different water retention capacity, crop information and crop demands that differ during the season,” said Gurjinder Baath, Assistant Professor at Texas A&M AgriLife Research. “We are trying to integrate all these important pieces of information together in this app so a more effective, reliable decision for irrigation can be generated.”
What’s next for Liquid Prep
Liquid Prep is currently in the second phase of the 2-year IBM Sustainability Accelerator program, which is centered on the development and implementation of the tool. Within the first phase, a technical roadmap was produced via the IBM Garage to guide solution design, development and deployment of the solution. New versions of the app and sensor are currently being tested.
To ensure the tool was adequately meeting farmers’ needs, the researchers also needed to generate feedback from those whom the tool will be targeted to help. Farmers, researchers and water managers in Alabama, Louisiana and Texas tested the previous version of the solution throughout 2022. Over 100 smallholder farmers will be targeted in 2023 to test the solution in Louisiana.
“We are trying to get in touch with as many farming communities as possible, and we are trying to get their feedback, because farmers’ issues are different,” Gurjinder said.
In addition, IBM is bringing in strategic allies to contribute even more value to the project. For example, the team will work with the Ukrainian Hydrometeorological Institute to gather more data to train and fine-tune the machine learning models used to generate recommendations to farmers. Ukraine is known as the “breadbasket of Europe,” so the distinct properties of the region will provide a valuable dataset to help improve the tool.
Through this partnership, the tool will also be given a new use case: to guide recovery and resource management amid the war in Ukraine. With information and farming resources difficult to access, the researchers are working on developing a flood and drought assessment system to identify the most affected regions that need the most resources and support.
There is power in partnerships
By uniting experts and technology with the purpose of improving the lives of populations most affected by environmental threats, we have the potential to make lasting, scalable impact on populations in need. IBM’s technology and expertise, combined with the background and resources of Texas A&M AgriLife, has increased Liquid Prep’s potential to help people around the world.
The IBM Sustainability Accelerator helps populations most vulnerable to environmental threats, and has also empowered smallholder farmers in Latin America in the fight for food security. In March, IBM announced a new opportunity to support even more organizations developing solutions like Liquid Prep. The company is currently accepting proposals for the 3rd cohort of the IBM Sustainability Accelerator, which will focus on water management solutions. Nonprofit and governmental organizations are encouraged to apply.