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UK: WET Centre helps strawberry growers reduce water use

Reducing the amount of water needed to grow high quality full flavoured strawberries while at the same time optimising the yield of the crop is now achievable thanks to the work of the new Water Efficient Technologies (WET) Centre, developed at NIAB EMR.

The WET Centre, based at the centre for horticulture and perennial fruit crop research in Kent, has been designed to showcase the latest developments in irrigation management and moisture sensing technologies.

It was officially opened by Rt Hon George Eustice, Minister of State at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) when he visited Fruit Focus, hosted by NIAB EMR at East Malling.

Prof Mario Caccamo (left) with George Eustice MP (centre) and Dr Mark Else (right) at the launch of the WET Centre

Professor Mario Caccamo, Managing Director of NIAB EMR, said: “The WET Centre represents the future of soft fruit production. It brings together applied research, IT and data management, and growers who want to adopt new technologies in order to improve the consistency and quality of what they produce.”

“Initially, the focus of the WET Centre will be on soft fruit, but the technology has the potential to improve irrigation performance for other crops in the future.”

The first commercial application of the applied research undertaken at NIAB EMR is the Precision Irrigation Package (PIP) which provides fully automated irrigation to maintain moisture at precise levels to optimise water productivity, yields and berry quality.

The PIP system offers real-time monitoring of moisture levels and irrigation performance. It is backed up by a 24/7 alert system, remotely maintained and operated at NIAB EMR which can notify growers of any potential problems.

Commenting on the WET Centre, Dr Mark Else of NIAB EMR, said: “Growers need the confidence that they can accurately control the irrigation of their crops and avoid the impact that over or under-watering can have on the consistency of the fruit produced, in this case strawberries.”

The NIAB EMR research has gone from the laboratory to field trials and now into commercial scale demonstration. The trials showed that with less run-off and improved water use efficiency, there is less wastage of key inputs. Growers can typically reduce usage of water, fertilisers, pesticides and energy by 20 per cent, representing a saving for strawberry growers of £2,400 per hectare per year.

By eliminating unplanned water deficits, the trials have also shown that PIP can deliver higher yields compared with manual scheduling methods. Yields of Class 1 strawberries were up to 10 per cent higher with PIP, worth around £10,600 per hectare per year for a typical grower.

In more than 20 commercial trials undertaken in the last three years, yields and fruit quality with PIP have either matched or exceeded conventional irrigation in all cases.

Factoring in the cost savings, and assuming a five per cent improvement in yields, the WET Centre Partners estimate that the net financial benefit of using PIP for a grower producing 20 hectares of strawberries would be £6,600 per hectare per year, representing an increase in net income over three years of £396,000 for a typical strawberry grower.

The WET Centre has been developed by NIAB EMR in collaboration with a number of commercial partners, including Berry Gardens Growers, Delta T Devices, Netafim UK, New Leaf Irrigation and Cocogreen (UK), with further support from Meiosis, South East Water, Kent County Council and LEAF.

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