That’s part and parcel of the annual rendezvous, held this year in Houston, where the agenda made a hard turn toward water management and farm legislation that, for once, doesn’t exclude the produce industry.

EQIP, the Environmental Quality Incentive Program, for instance, may offer fruit and vegetable growers “the opportunity to use the same programs available for other commodities, especially for irrigation improvement,” said Mack Gray, deputy undersecretary for USDA.

Gray said EQIP emerged from a “a number of conservation programs in 1996. Unfortunately, the program never had enough money to do what was needed.”

He’s encouraged by increased funding within the Food Security and Rural Development Act of 2002. “We have more money than ever for conservation,” Gray said. Programs include wetlands easements, which will pay the cost of returning land to a wetlands classification. A farmland protection easement also provides incentives to keep agricultural acreage out of developers’ hands. EQIP also includes support for conservation tillage, confined animal feeding facility improvements, and invasive brush control for rangeland.

“EQIP provides technical and financial assistance to carry out water conservation on private land,” Gray said. The National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) will carry out the programs.

He said Texas might qualify for $35 million to $40 million for the 2001 and 2002 seasons.

“Many farmers already use practices that qualify,” he said.

Lower Rio Grande Valley produce growers might qualify for funds to improve irrigation infrastructure. A water district can’t qualify for funds, Gray explained, but a number of farmers or landowners along an irrigation ditch can form a “pooling agreement” to replace pipe. Each individual takes care of the cost of the pipe across his property and EQIP funds may be available to refund part of the cost.

Gray said no one individual may collect more than $450,000 from the program. But as long as no one goes over that figure, a pooling arrangement can get several million dollars in improvements for a system.”

He said the program is designed to help conserve water. But he cautioned landowners to be careful with the funds and avoid criticism, which could put the program in jeopardy. “Any practice that costs more than $100,000 will be funded for no more than 50 percent,” he said.

Nationally, EQIP will have $750 million to $800 million for 2003 and $1.2 billion to $1.3 billion for 2004. Over the life of the program, funding may reach $9 billion.

Fruit and vegetable irrigation also has been left out of advancing technology, says Giovanni Piccinni, a plant stress physiology researcher for Texas A&M at Uvalde.

Piccinni hopes to remedy that oversight with a project to identify daily water demand for vegetable crops.

“We rarely see furrow irrigation systems in vegetables anymore,” Piccinni said. Growers are converting to more water efficient systems, and using Potential Evapo-Transpiration (PET) data to evaluate water demand and schedule irrigation.

The slug in the salad has been that PET information is not crop specific. “We need a crop co-efficient to make the data useful,” he said. “That co-efficient changes with each stage of crop growth, so we have to develop data to show us what a specific crop needs at a specific growth period.”

Piccinni noted that vegetables have only three growth stages, but with limited water growers need as much information as possible to apply moisture at the most beneficial times.

He’s designed an in-field lysimeter, which he calls a “giant flower pot,” in which he can control and measure moisture.

“We put the lysimeter in the ground and fill it with soil. I’ll plant a crop and recording devices installed in the unit measure water use. We monitor the lysimeter continuously.”

He plans to use onions and spinach in the lysimeter this fall.

“Ultimately, we hope to decrease water use with precision agricultural technology,” he said.

That’s also the goal of Guy Fipps, also with Texas A&M. “The Board of Regents approved an Irrigation Technology Center last May,” Fipps said. “We’re moving forward with the project and could break ground within a year.”

e-mail: rsmith@primediabusiness.com