University of Maryland Extension

University of Maryland Extension Specialist Receives National Award for Research Excellence in Water Use Management

John Lea-Cox w/ a Research Sensor Network
Image Credit: 
Edwin Remsberg

Washington, D.C. -- This past Sunday, Dr. John Lea-Cox and a select group of colleagues accepted the 2017 Experiment Station Section Excellence in Multistate Research award for their work in managing irrigation for ornamental crops. The project, titled NC-1186: Water Management and Quality for Ornamental Crop Production and Health, is a national working group helping ornamental nursery and greenhouse operations better manage water use, as availability and quality of water for irrigation decreases. As part of this effort, Lea-Cox is helping commercial growers manage daily irrigation practices through sensor-based networks. Due to the efforts of his University of Maryland team and others in this national group, growers are reporting a reduction in pathogenic disease and herbicide and pesticide runoff, better crop quality, increased water savings, and shorter production cycles – all of which are increasing economic returns to farmers.

Representing the University of Maryland, Lea-Cox is a professor within UMD’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources and is part of a multistate program group comprised of researchers from 21 land-grant universities. This working group -- funded by some modest yearly dollars from the USDA -- has been deliberate in mentoring the next generation of researchers to solve water security and nutrient management challenges. They are particularly concerned with capacity building amongst institutional faculty, and are committed to meeting the five and ten-year benchmark process as part of the USDA grant. There is a dedication to transparency, outcomes and impact with three generations of researchers as part of this group, including post-docs and graduate students.

With a substantial $5.2 million, five-year Specialty Crop Research Initiative (SCRI) grant from the USDA in 2009, Lea-Cox led a national team developing sensor networks and software for use by ornamental growers. This initial effort led to a further SCRI planning grant which was instrumental in identifying water re-use issues through a national survey of nearly 400 ornamental crop growers. “The top three issues in play were disease/pathogens, herbicide/pesticide and agrichemical runoff, and the economics of water security,” said Lea-Cox. “Great discussions were had with lots of questions we need to answer; for instance, ‘Should I devote five acres of land on my property for storing water?’ This a valid question and an issue we’re now working to resolve for ornamental growers, through the follow-up national grant led by Sarah White at Clemson University.”

As part of this new national grant, Lea-Cox and his Maryland team supports two on-farm and one research sensor network in Maryland with additional networks at Michigan State, UC Davis, Virginia Tech and Oregon State. Each location is focused on solving different runoff issues, which gives the larger working group the capability to analyze this large-scale data and devise appropriate solutions. Farmers are heavily embedded into this research with on-site gathering of water samples for nutrient analysis, and sequencing of pathogens from containment ponds. This work is identifying critical control points where they can target specific technologies to reduce issues caused by drought, pollution, competition for water resources and concerns about environmental impacts. Ultimately, this will be distilled into a series of decision support tools, which will help growers adjust irrigation practices to reduce nutrient and agrochemical runoff, as well as increase the efficiency of water resources.

“Quite a bit of this work has never been done before on farms,” said Lea-Cox. “We have already seen some exciting statistics as a result, including numerous instances where sensor systems have reduced irrigation by at least 50%, saving not only millions of gallons of water, but allowing farmers to irrigate more land with the water they have saved. Our hope is that these trends in adoption continue and that we can help improve the economic viability of growers as well as overall plant, human and environmental health.”

The group plans to conduct a follow up survey in 2022 to determine how growers have adopted these new tools and strategies, to address barriers to adoption. This project is supported, in part, through USDA’s NIFA by the Multistate Research Fund established in 1998 by the Agricultural Research, Extension, and Education Reform Act to encourage and enhance multi-state, multi-disciplinary research on critical national or regional issues.     

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