Published on 12/13/12

UGA researchers nominated for international sustainability award

By Merritt Melancon

Agriculture uses about 70 percent of the world’s fresh water supply, but a growing population’s increasing demand for drinking water means farmers need to know how to grow more with less water.

A nationwide team of researchers — including scientists, engineers and economists from University of Maryland, University of Georgia, Carnegie Mellon University, Colorado State University, Cornell University, University of Maryland-Center for Environmental Science, Antir Software and Decagon Devices — is developing a new method to make agricultural water use much more efficient. Their work has attracted international attention, resulting in a nomination for a Katerva Award.

Katerva promotes and recognizes collaborative approaches to solving global problems, and has recognized these researchers’ collaboration to develop hyper-efficient irrigation systems. The Smart Farm project was not chosen for the last round of the competition, but the researchers felt honored to have been one of just a few dozen projects nominated.

The research and development team from UGA includes horticulture professors Marc van Iersel, Matthew Chappell, Paul Thomas and John Ruter; technician Sue Dove; and UGA doctoral students Mandy Bayer and Alem Peter. They have studied how to best use soil moisture sensors for irrigation control. On-farm testing at Evergreen Nursery in Statham, Ga., and McCorkle Nurseries in Dearing, Ga., has shown water savings of up to 83 percent, while saving labor and improving plant quality.

“Being nominated for this award is a great honor and shows that our team has done outstanding and important work” says van Iersel.

The team developed an economically viable system that uses remotely accessed soil and weather sensors to help farmers decide when and how much to irrigate their crops. The sensors relay information to a website that farmers can use to adjust their irrigation plans and schedules based on actual crop water needs, rather than timers or other less precise irrigation control methods.

The group developed the precision irrigation concept with the help of a $5.1 million grant from the United States Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture Specialty Crops Research Initiative, along with a $5.1 million in matching contributions from the collaborating institutions, companies and horticulture industry. Seed grants from the Horticultural Research Institute, American Floral Endowment and the Fred C. Gloeckner Foundation helped pay for much of the early work.

Their system is currently being tested in eight greenhouse and nursery operations in Maryland, Ohio, Tennessee and Georgia. While the initial trials are on a small scale, the system is designed to be scalable, so that growers can easily expand it.

“By making the system scalable, growers can try it out in a small area,” said John Lea-Cox, a nursery industry research and Extension specialist with the University of Maryland “If they decide they like it, it will be easy to implement it on a much larger scale.”

Decagon Devices partnered with the Smart Farm project to develop commercially available hardware and software systems to help the horticulture industry implement this new irrigation approach.

According to the non-profit, “Katerva isn't looking for ideas that will improve the world in small increments. We are looking for paradigm-busting ideas. Our Award winners don't simply move the needle when it comes to efficiency, lifestyle or consumption; they change the game entirely.”

Katerva was founded as a British non-profit in 2010 to promote and recognize innovative ideas for solving global environmental and humanitarian issues.

The international news organization Reuters has called the Katerva Awards “the Nobel Prizes of sustainability."

Those looking for more information about the Smart Farm project can visit For more information about the Katerva Awards, visit

Merritt Melancon is a public relations manager with UGA's Terry College of Business and previously served as a public relations coordinator for the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences and UGA Extension.

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