8 essential questions to ask before installing an irrigation system

Photo credit: nrcs.usda.gov

Irrigation systems offer a variety of benefits.  They allow for the growth of a wider variety of crops.  They can be timed so that the hands-on portion of crop production is a little less cumbersome.  They protect crops from irregular and dry weather conditions.  They support leaching, which can remove harmful, crop-damaging salts within in the soil.  Crops that are supported by irrigation tend to be much more productive.

To reap said various benefits, several considerations must be made and an assortment of essential questions must be answere

1. Why do you want an irrigation system?

2. What type of soil do you have?

      Do you have sandy, loamy or clay?  It could also be (and often is) a combination of the           three.

Photo credit: salinitymanagement.org

3.  What is the amount and distribution of the precipitation?

  • When does the growing area receive the most rain?   
  • Is the rain equally distributed throughout the year?
  • Are there rainy and dry seasons?
  • How much precipitation does the area receive annually?
    • Arid: less than 200mm/year
    • Semi-Arid: less than 400mm/year
    • Humid: more than 1000mm/year
    • Semi-humid: more than 800mm/year

4.  What are the temperature ranges and averages?

Are there hot and cold seasons?
Are there temperature extremes?

5.  What is the climatic water balance?

How does water flow in and out of your environmental system?
Is there a renewable source of water that can support the irrigation system?  


6.  What are the soil conditions?

  • Water storage capacity/Available water capacity (AWC)
    • This is the range of available water that can be stored in soil and be available for
      growing crops

      • formula: (water content at field capacity) – (permanent wilting point)
  • Field capacity (FC)  
    • This is how much soil moisture or water content is retained in the water after the excess water has drained and the rate of downward movement (free drainage) has decreased.  This typically takes place 2 – 3 days following rain or irrigation (assuming the soil is pervious and uniform in structure and texture).
  • Soil depth
  • Humus content
    • Humus is composed of decayed organic matter (plant and animal).  As it decomposes, it provides plants with many nutrients required for their growth.
  • The slope of the growing area
Photo credit: agry.purdue.edu

7. What crops do you want to grow?

  • What are the water demands of the desired crops?
    • Are the crops perennial (trees, vineyards) or annual (tomatoes, beans)?
    • How do the chosen crops react to water stress and irrigation?
    • Will cover crops be used?
    • How and when will crops be rotated?

8. What water will be used for the irrigation system?

  • Is there renewable water (not old water)?
  • What type of water will be used?
    • Recycled, waste or fresh
  • In what condition is the water?
    • Salt levels
    • PH levels
    • Presence of heavy metals
    • Are there hygiene issues (disease, effluence)

Once these questions have been answered, the next step is deciding the type of irrigation system that will be used.  

See also:

agricultural irrigation

the purpose of agricultural irrigation and the advantages and disadvantages of mainstream methods

Irrigation is defined as the artificial application of water to the soil through various systems of tubes, pumps, and sprayers.  Approximately 20% of the world’s agricultural land is irrigated, yet 40% of the world food supply comes from irrigated lands with 70% of the world’s freshwater reserves being used for irrigation purposes.  

The main reasons for irrigation are:

1. Not enough rainfall to support crop growth.  

This may be due to rainy and dry seasons, drought or arid or semi-arid climate conditions.  Irrigation systems may also be used to maintain consistent moisture levels even in areas with moderate precipitation levels as it has been shown to improve crop performance.


2. High soil salinity levels.  

High soil salinity levels can be a natural occurrence which is the case in many semi-arid and arid locations or a result of poor agricultural practices and ineffective drainage.  In cases impacted by salt levels in the soil, irrigation must often be coupled with drainage in order to achieve the desired benefits.  

There are two main types of agricultural irrigation – gravity powered and pressure driven systems.  Gravity powered systems are, as the name implies, driven by gravity.  Pressure driven systems require an electrical pump in order to provide the irrigation system with water.

Examples of gravity powered systems include:

  • Furrow irrigation systems, basin irrigation systems and hand irrigation systems.

Advantages of Gravity Powered Irrigation Systems

  • Low-cost – gravity is free and simple irrigation systems can be developed to use this wonder of physics
  • Promotes social interaction – many community members need to work together to ensure the success of irrigation systems, particularly those dependent on water that comes from long distances (ex. mountain runoff)
  • Can be used indefinitely as long as the irrigation system is well-maintained

Disadvantages of Gravity Powered Irrigation Systems

  • Requires constant monitoring to ensure that the crops are not damaged by too much/too little irrigation water
  • Difficult to adapt to the specific needs of plants
Furrow Irrigation
Basin Irrigation, Photo Credit mit.edu


Examples of pressure powered irrigation systems include:

  • Drip irrigation systems, sprinkler irrigation systems and pivot irrigation systems.

Advantages of Pressure Powered Irrigation Systems

  • High water efficiency
  • Very adaptable to the needs of the plants which allows a wider variety of crops to be grown – especially those of higher value

Disadvantages of Pressure Powered Irrigation Systems

  • High use and maintenance costs (parts replacement, electricity costs)
  • Expensive to install
  • Requires a high level of education and training for use (the most advanced system in the world can be installed, but if the people don’t know how to use it, it’s useless.)
  • Needs to be replaced every 10 – 20 years as the technology becomes outdated
Drip Irrigation System, Photo Credit: heritageoakfarm.com
Sprinkler Irrigation System, Photo Credit: ers.usda.gov
Pivot Irrigation, Photo Credit: ers.usda.gov



livestock – fact or prejudice?

Human and livestock have lived in ecological harmony for 10,000 years.

True! It is only with the emergence of modern industrialized agriculture that livestock production has become ecologically harmful.

source: wikipedia.org
source: wikipedia.org

Livestock competes with humans for food and water

Technically speaking, pigs and chickens are in competition with humans because we can consume similar foodstuffs. However, in the past this was not a problem as livestock was allowed to roam relatively freely on farms. As they roamed, they consumed waste products and food that was not going to be consumed by humans. In modern times, livestock could be used as a means to manage certain food niches (ex. Restaurant food wastes), creating a solution, rather than a bigger problem of competition.

Livestock is necessary for human survival

Historically speaking, livestock production has played an essential role in the development of human societies and was necessary. In modern times, namely is developed countries, livestock is not necessarily critical to human survival as there are a variety of substitutes. However, in developing words and certain climates, livestock continues to be an essential source of nutrition. It may also be economically necessary.

Animal proteins are essential for human health and survival

In the past, animal proteins were necessary for human survival. They are not currently a vital part of the human nutrition, although animal proteins are shown to have a positive effect on health. Additionally, there are many examples of human-animal coevolution (ex. Maasai tribe in Africa).

Livestock contributes significantly to climate change

The means in which humans are managing livestock culture is more to blame than the animals themselves. There is currently a lack of balance between livestock production and the natural environment. When compounded with other environmental issues, such as increased demand for feedstuff (which is a direct competition with humans), land conversion and waste management issues, it could be said that livestock production plays a contributing role to climate change.

Livestock facilitates the exploitation of otherwise unusable marginal lands

Land is considered unusable for crop production when it receives less than 300mm of rain per year. However, there will still be shrubs and grasses which can serve as fodder for certain species of livestock. In response to this fact, livestock is often produced on such areas (ex. Reindeer production on tundra land). This can put a significant amount of environmental stress on already sensitive ecological environments.

source: footage.framepool.com
source: footage.framepool.com

Livestock diminishes and contaminate water sources

Problems with Nitrate contamination in water can be traced back to livestock production. However, issues with water contamination are not necessarily the fault of the animals. Instead, it is often ineffective and poorly enforced water protection legislation that leads to poor waste management practices.

Livestock diversifies and stabilizes crop farming

Livestock can contribute in various ways on a farm. They can provide environmentally friendly work, consume plant waste that is unfit for humans, produce manure which can be used for fertilizer (as opposed to chemical version) and provide farmers with other items to sell which can supplement incomes.

Livestock threatens biodiversity

Livestock can help to diversity farms and the use of native species of livestock best suited to a given location can protect the streamlining of species (ex. There were previously about 800 recognized unique breeds of cow {with many localized adaptions}. However, now 2/3 of all the cows have some Holstein blood). This is known as a biodiversity decrease within a species. Additionally, in places where livestock is produced, instances of diverse types of flora have shown to be diminished.

Livestock provides environmentally friendly draft power


Livestock poses public health risks

This is largely dependent on management and living conditions of the animals. However, there are problems associated with improper antibiotic use, poor waste management and disease transmission.

Livestock is beautiful


source: peta.org
source: peta.org


food deserts defined and examined

What exactly is a food desert?

The term food desert was first coined in the 1990s in Scotland.  It is used to describe locations where there is little or no access to healthy foods. This is often due to a lack of “normal” and “safe” food sources (i.e. supermarkets). When residents do not have regular access to healthy foods, they become classified as food insecure.

food mart

The term food desert has come to be the embodiment of urban decay. In America, approximately 10% of the population lives in a food desert. For an area to be considered a food desert, at least 20% of inhabitants must be below the poverty line and 33% of the population must live more than a mile from a supermarket in urban areas or 10 miles in rural locations. In food deserts, individuals must expend greater resources to reach normal food sources and these are the areas that often have the fewest resources to use.  The most significant limitations include financial restraints, physical ailments and a lack of transportation.

Who is affected by food deserts?

The negative effects of food deserts disproportionately affect locations primarily populated by the elderly and the poor with age, income and educational levels being the factors that are most strongly related to food insecurity levels.  It is theorized that this has been caused by the consolidation of food retailers which has driven smaller retailers from these locations at a greater rate.This trend can be seen in both urban and rural locations.

no car no supermarket

Why are some areas more dramatically affected?

This is a difficult question to answer, but it can likely be attributed to the cycle of poverty that restricts the quality of life in many poor areas. However, there are other factors that need to be more thoroughly examined and the question, “Is the issue of food deserts a problem of supply or demand?” needs to be addressed.

There may be in fact little or no demand for healthier options which stems from varying sociocultural views on food, rather than food access. Additionally, simply providing healthy food options does not change consumer behavior. Some people just do not care about their dietary health. These factors are typically influenced by age and gender.

cost difference
source: keepfoodaffordable.com

Furthermore, it may not be that there is a lack of access, but the lack of necessary funds needed to purchase healthy foods (it is estimated that fruits and vegetables cost up to 36% more than the national average in food deserts). There is also the issue of not having the necessary skills or knowledge to prepare many fruits and vegetables after several generations of dependency on fast and convenience foods.

Are there other food sources that can help alleviate problems caused by food deserts?

There are three major categories of food sources:

  1. Normal sources: retailers
  2. Government food assistance: WIC, school lunch programs, nutrition assistance for the elderly
  3. Alternative food sources: gifts, private charity

What are some possible solutions for addressing the issue of food deserts?

In the past, many of the solutions have been solely focused on the number of calories that receivers of assistance consume, rather than the quality of food they are consuming.  In order for solutions to be long-term and “worth” the investment this perspective must change.

Among the variety of options, the most viable solution that will be the most broadly beneficial is strengthening the social infrastructure of a given area.  This is accomplished by encouraging social connections between families, friends and neighbors as studies have shown that increases in social capital decrease the likelihood that members of the community will have hunger issues.

The most common methods for developing social infrastructures are traditional options which include opening low-cost/free food pantries (often associated with religious institutions), visiting farmers markets and offering senior meal programs.

Other options include:

  • Building up support for local retailers: shopping at Wal-Mart may seem like it is cheaper, but the real cost of dependency on businesses with little empathy for the community is more often than not detrimental in the long-run.
  • Developing transportation networks: beneficial not only to those using the service but to the environmental, too.
  • Encouraging the retail sale of locally produced food: the revenue stays in the community where it is really needed
  • Establishing gardens to plant enough food to share: produces local (and often organic) food and provides an opportunity for social interaction.
  • Expanding civic organizations (ex. VFW, churches, rotary club): these types of organizations were once pillars of communities and provided opportunities for social networking.
  • Investing in living wage industries: should anyone really be working full-time and not have the ability to buy food?
  • Volunteering time at local farms in exchange for access to meat or other goods produced: the average age of farmers is increasing while interest in farming wanes.  Renewing the connection between communities and their food sources may help to reduce the centralization of the food system and redistribute consumer power.

Those solutions sound great, but what type of problems might be encountered when applying them to real-life situations?

The very definition of food deserts can cause problems when working towards long-term, positive solutions. This is due to the fact that the USDA excludes farmers markets, small farms, smaller retailers and road stands from its definition of a food desert. This means that solutions are being developed without access to all of the pertinent information which can spur resentment from the existing infrastructure. Such an issue is particularly pertinent when attempting to develop decentralized and locally beneficial options (why couldn’t small corner store serve as viable replacements for traditional grocery stores?).

Then the fact that only about 15% of people shop for food in their census area.  It is hard to estimate whether consumers will change their habits if new infrastructure is developed. The type of infrastructure also plays a role as many individuals in food deserts resent alternative food systems as they represent the idea that where they live is not good enough for a conventional supermarket. This issue is often amplified by the romanticized “if they only knew” logic which does not typically reflect the values of those being affected. Often organic, farm-fresh or vegetarian is considered less than palatable and even dirty or disgusting.

When discussing social factors that could hinder efforts, the racial and cultural relationship between various groups throughout the country need to be considered. For example, in areas primarily populated by minorities (in this case Blacks), there is the notion that the efforts being made are an attempt to inject white food values into the community and are the embodiment of white privilege (alternative food options tend to be perpetuated by Whites). Issues of former land stewardship make the idea of growing their own food unpleasant and does not appeal to this demographic. This group also seems to prefer the anonymity of grocery stores and resents the eugenic nature of “knowing where your food comes from”. Furthermore, the mere definition of a food desert can also be considered disrespectful as it invokes images of a location beyond repair (see: Bringing Good Food to Others).

Finally, there is the issue of governmental priorities.  Should people be fed or should tax breaks be given? Is a new truck for the sheriff or a community garden more important? Voter apathy allows a very small percentage of residents to make that decision.

If there are so many problems and people resent the type of help offered, why bother caring?

The simplest answer is because we are all humans in a time of great uncertainty and inequality.  If thoughtful measures are not made now, problems with food access will only continue to grow. As the insecurity grows, it will affect more and more people. It will also balloon into problems in other areas of life (ex. riots in the Middle East).

Moreover, there are economic incentives. It is estimated that a $1 of investment in grocery stores equals $1.50 in returns which means that such an investment has the potential to benefit several different groups simultaneously. As an added bonus, it creates a way to bridge private and public interests.


Barker, ME., Campell, MJ., Pearson, T., Russel J., Oct 2005. Do food deserts influence fruit and vegetable consumption? — a cross-sectional study. Appetite. 45(2) 195-197.

Gordon, S. 2011. Urbanites cry foul on USDA definition of food deserts. Earth Eats.

Guthman, J. 2008. Bringing good food to others: investigating the subjects of alternative food practice. Cultural Geographies, 4, 431-447.

If you build it, they may not come. 2011. Economist. http://www.economist.com/node/18929190

Wright, M. L., Bitto, E. A., Oakland, M. J., Sand, M. 2005. Solving the problems of Iowa food deserts: food Insecurity and civic structure. Rural Sociology, 70, 94-112.