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Costs, soils management and abstraction examined at recent AHDB Potatoes Irrigation Workshop, Herefordshire

21 June 2013

Coinciding with publication of its new Irrigation Guide, AHDB Potatoes’s recent Irrigation Workshop in Withington, Herefordshire flowed well last week, with the packed agenda of technical irrigation topics and expert speakers attracting growers from around the region. Even though it was a small, workshop-style event, a great deal of timely technical knowledge was shared on the day.

 
Anthony Hopkins, Director of Wroot Water Ltd, kicked off with practical advice for planning and designing irrigation systems, advising that growers needed to assess their sites by looking at topography, water (and power) availability. Anthony advised that growers needed to address such questions as can you expand the system? What will the cost be? How practical is it and who will be responsible for it? He warned that choosing the wrong filtration system can prove very expensive: impurities can dramatically increase filtration costs and the type and cost of filtration used depends on the water source. 
 
Cost and energy comparisons between trickle, solid set sprinkler and hose-reel systems were examined, with the trickle system emerging as the most efficient and cheapest irrigation method. It was also stressed that growers should invest in the best irrigation system they can afford from the outset in order to avoid costly upgrades at a later stage.
 
Kate Adams, Catchment Sensitive Farming Officer (CSF) for the Wye explained how agriculture consumes around 33% of the total water used from the Wye’s catchment area. Kate explained how CSF has targeted priority areas where evidence of agricultural pollution exists and how CSF and local growers are working together to tackle pollution. 
 
Agriculture (especially the operation of spray irrigation) amounts to 93% of the surface water abstraction from the Wye. However, the river and its tributaries are designated sites protected by European law and currently classified as ‘unfavourable’ due to the condition of its waterborne wildlife. Now, most licenses in the Wye have ‘Hands-Off Flow’ restrictions to reduce or stop abstractions when river levels reach a critical point, in order to protect the environment and other river users. Kate stressed it is key for growers to formulate an effective irrigation plan in order to produce successful crops now abstraction availability is coming under increasing pressure.
 
One way to reduce abstraction needs, advised Kate, is by effective soil management and recommended that growers conducted an assessment of their soil conditions to check for any compaction (with lots of tips for how to go about this). AHDB Potatoes and CSF’s joint Soil and Water for Potatoes event in Herefordshire earlier this year examined different methods for alleviating run-off, with research proving that run-off can be dramatically reduced by 50-98% by good soil management practice, ultimately saving growers further resources that are always under pressure – time and money! 
 
Peter Timms, Senior Permitting Officer at the Environment Agency (Water Resources) stressed how important irrigation was to the local economy (not just for potatoes but other crops such as asparagus, soft fruit and top fruit). However he pointed out that regional water availability was stretched, especially in summer, and that abstraction caused major problems for rivers consequently failing to meet Water Framework Directive (WFD) standards. Peter advised that these problems can be avoided or at least reduced by taking proactive measures, such as improving irrigation efficiencies, harvesting rain water, joining a local abstractor group (such as HWAG), undertaking a water audit and developing a winter storage reservoir. Reservoirs in particular can be very effective; they can use winter fill and provide flexibility, security and control, as well as lead to reduced abstraction charges and additional income through water trading.
 
Future legislation, the Government’s White Paper on water and the possibility of a new abstraction regime were all discussed at length by attendees, with trickle irrigation expected to come under abstraction regulations by April 2014, revealing that it is key for growers to work with the authorities to ensure all aspects are considered if legislation is reviewed. Peter further emphasised the need for any abstractor currently utilising trickle irrigation to continue to monitor and record their usage until it is brought into the licensing regime. 
 
Peter Gwynne, Director of Agri-Management Solutions Ltd, Chairman of Herefordshire Water Abstraction Group (HWAG) and a soft fruit grower himself, talked about how the group was formed primarily to give local abstractors a presence and dialogue with the authorities, and to channel information and questions concerning water issues from the group directly to the relevant government department. 
 
Peter stated “With the changing emphasis on efficient water use and the possibility of tighter abstraction legislation, including "Hands-Off Flow" restrictions on the local river network, it’s important to be able to communicate with the right people.” He says “A current issue concerning growers is the uncertainty over trickle irrigation licensing, postponed again until April 2014. HWAG is already involved in this process and is working with other concerned groups and the authorities to support local abstractors.”
 
95% of HWAG membership uses trickle irrigation and HWAG is encouraging growers who use rain guns and/or booms to join HWAG. 
 
Peter also touched on licences that are not time limited such as ‘Grandfather Rights’, stressing the importance of the name on the licence being correct, otherwise the licence could be void and any new licence would have time limits and restrictions. 
 
Growers attending the event were asked if they would change any working practices as a result of attending the workshop, with nearly all indicating they would at least review certain aspects of their irrigation, or review their entire irrigation plan.
 
The group concluded that water security was ultimately good for business and the environment, and planning ahead is needed by growers in order to improve efficiency and build resilience for the future.
 
AHDB Potatoes’s new Irrigation Guide and extensive water and irrigation advice can be viewed and downloaded at www.potato.org.uk/water.
 
Presentations from the recent Irrigation Workshop can be viewed and downloaded at www.potato.org.uk/knowledge-hub/media/presentations.
 
Contact AHDB Potatoes’s soils, water and environment expert Chris Steele for further information, tel: 07500 100715.
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