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Thirsty Plant Sensors Could Mean Better Drought-Resistance

When a houseplant begins to droop or wilt, their need for water is fairly apparent. When dealing with acres and acres of crops, addressing water shortages is a lot harder and the stakes are a lot higher. A new technology developed by MIT engineers could change that by enabling plants to send a message at the first signs of drought conditions. Could it help lead to more thirst-resistant crops and more efficient agriculture practices?

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Image Source: Wikimedia

Real-time Measurement Of Biological Responses

By printing tiny carbon nanotube sensors on the surface of plants, a signal can then be transmitted once a plant starts to show early signs of being affected by drought. The process works as small pores on a plant’s surface, known as stomata, open and close in response to light, carbon dioxide, lack of water, and other stimuli. Real-time measurement of stomata response has been difficult to understand until the integration of carbon nanotube sensors.

Better Insight For Growers And Scientists

By measuring the stomata responses over a period of time, researchers were able to determine when plants were deprived of water to a point of stress, with greater accuracy and before other signs of drought became apparent. In the research process, carbon nanotube ink was printed directly on the plant. For potential agricultural, gardening, and environmental research applications, the same technology could be applied to a sticker, which would then provide insight to growers and field scientists. The technology may also be put to use for engineering plants that are more resistant to drought conditions.


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Is California’s Drought Actually Benefiting One Industry?

As snow and rainfall remains scarce in America’s south and central western states, there are many industries that are suffering. California’s diverse agricultural producers have been some of the hardest hit by increasingly limited water supply. From cheese to cotton, tomatoes to oranges, many of California’s signature crops and goods have been a lot more costly and challenging to produce.

However, dry skies and parched earth hasn’t affected all businesses equally. There’s one iconic California industry that’s actually found some favorable conditions in the region’s rough and resilient drought: wine.

Napa_Valley_grapevines_1Image Source: Wikimedia

Relying On Drought Resistance
Grape growers and vineyard owners in Napa Valley are used to doing more with a lot less water. Even before mandatory water cutbacks had California farmers questioning how they could stay operational with limited irrigation, wine has typically been a dry business. Dry farming methods were long considered the best way to maintain a vineyard, not just in California, but in France and Spain as well.

Relying solely on the few dozen inches of water that annually fell on Napa County, many vineyards were able to produce a wide range of richer, flavorful wines that would become California’s third largest cash crop and perhaps its most drought resistant. Lack of rainfall has taken such a toll on other crops that some farmers, who have grown tomatoes, oranges, grapefruit, cotton and other “thirsty”  produce for generations, have switched to more enduring fruits, vegetables, and nuts such as dragonfruit, pistachios, and—of course—wine grapes.

Putting Technology To Test And Practice
However, even California’s wine producers have to be conscious of the limited water they use, especially as the drought lingers on. As necessity breeds invention, some companies have found innovative ways to stretch their water supply using conservation and recycling techniques.

Rain capture systems and onsite water treatment technologies may soon be a big business in the region. Recapture methods that filter waste water into useful supply for irrigation, cleaning, bottling and other vineyard facilities are yielding impressive results in experimental capacities and may soon be used by commercial wineries.

winewaterImage Source: NPR 

Innovate As We Adapt
Though its not clear how long businesses and organizations will have to cope with the current drought, these conditions could become common in the foreseeable future. It’s certainly not too early to start using technology to overcome such challenges, while improving our ability to adapt tried and tested forms of agriculture, particularly in areas that rely them for prosperity and survival.

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How Will California’s Drought and Water Restrictions Go Beyond State Lines?

California has been in a severe state of drought for quite sometime. Matters have become so serious that Governor Jerry Brown has recently announced the largest mandatory water restrictions in the state’s history.

As cities and towns have been told to reduce their water usage by 25%, which comes on top of sacrifices that residents are already used to making, many are wondering how this widespread restriction will impact California’s vast and diverse agricultural sector, as well as the state’s overall economy. Gov. Brown has specified that the new restrictions target homeowners and businesses but not farmers. However, the effects of the water shortage and water saving measures are already resulting in major changes to life in the state, and could have further reaching effects.


Image Source: The Washington Post

High And Dry Across Local Borders
While California gets most of the drought headlines, lack of water in the western U.S. is having an impact on life in other states, Oregon, parts of Washington, Colorado, Arizona, and Nevada are all experiencing the effects of below average water stores. In fact, much of the Colorado River Basin, an important source of water for major cities throughout the South West, has been in a state of drought for over ten years. Lacking snowpack and rainfall not only make it easier for wildfires to start and spiral out of control in vulnerable spots, water treatment itself could become more of a challenge in the region.

Less Water, Less Work In The Fields
Severe water rationing has already stressed many in the agricultural sector, resulting in thousands upon thousand of acres of once productive land now yielding nothing. Beyond produce and high demand crops like almonds, the rationing is hindering dairy and meat production, and forcing many farm and ranch workers to seek opportunities far from their fields and farms. Some who remain have even turned to groundwater drilling and started preparing for new restrictions that will target the agricultural sector in addition to private homeowners and businesses.


Image Source: Manufacturing.Net

Drought Beyond The Golden State
Since water is needed to produce and sustain the many foods and agricultural essentials which California exports, the impact of the drought could start having greater effects in markets beyond the Golden State.  Decreased economic opportunities could also strain recovery that has remained tenuous in some areas. California’s restrictions might also be seen an example of what other parts of the nation could conceivably be subjected to in the near future. Long term conditions ranging from abnormally dry to severe drought have been recorded throughout the Midwest, South, and even the Northeast. It’s very possible that those conditions could continue to worsen over the next few years.

A Picture Of National Preparation?
In considering California’s current state of drought, we may need to think about more than just rising prices of almonds and oranges; we might also want to consider what lacking access to water could look like in backyards, businesses, and agricultural lands beyond the west coast.

Are states where drought is a less common issue prepared to deal with a drier future as California is doing now?

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Planting Crops And Launching Drones: A New Tech Hub In Agriculture

Like most industries throughout the United States and the world, the digital age is bringing new ways to innovate farming, food science, and other aspects of agriculture. In some cases, it’s even changing the shape of local economies.

Some of the smallest, least populated nations in Europe have become major players in vegetable, dairy and poultry production. How they’ve managed to do so is testament to the power of science, technology, and cooperation.  These factors have helped in overcoming the challenges of limited land space and human resources. Technology and relationships that bridge different organizations have also served as an inspiring starting point for Boulder, Denver, and surrounding communities in Colorado.


Major Effects On Agricultural Innovation
The state has now become a small hub for tech startups and agricultural science organizations. Based on the success seen in Netherlands and other nations that combine technology and agriculture, local Colorado economists are starting to get excited. The state’s progress in agriculture has even shown how urban centers can have major effects on agricultural innovation.

Following International Leaders
Following the relationship between researchers at Danish universities, farmers, local processing companies and tech startups—known as the Dutch Food Valley— Colorado is aiming to become what some are calling the Silicon Valley of agriculture. Attracting talent across all phases of better food production, from the raw science to agricultural and processing technology, has lead to organically grown, local prosperity.

Technology start ups are playing an especially big role. Drones and robotics have now become fully integrated into agricultural research and production, and the developers of those products have found plenty of opportunity in the new agricultural hub.


A Great Sector For Start ups?
Working in a stable, high demand sector, which the food industry often is, helps a lot too. Colorado is already home to some major names in food production and processing, including Leprino Foods, Ardent Mills, JBS USA, Celestial Seasons, and Justin’s Nut Butter. With the region now becoming more recognized as a place for startups, established companies, and talented professionals, will we see even more brands sprout or put down new roots?

Did you know that Colorado was becoming such an active location for agriculture and related technologies?

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