The first sustainable farming initiative leveraging Israel’s pioneering research and innovation in water technology will begin this spring at Conaway Ranch in Woodland, California.

The goal of the novel project is to reduce the vast amount of water ordinarily used in growing rice.

“We believe this initiative represents the first use of drip irrigation in the US for a rice crop,” said Kyriakos Tsakopoulos, president and chief executive officer of Conaway Preservation Group, owner of the 17,000-acre Conaway Ranch in north-central California.

“We couldn’t ask for better partners: Ben-Gurion University of the Negev’s Zuckerberg Institute for Water Research and Netafim USA, the world’s leading drip-irrigation manufacturer, both of which have experience growing rice in arid regions,” he said upon announcing the project at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference in Washington, D.C. on March 20.

“This effort could serve as a model for other farms and potentially save hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of water in California if widely adopted.”

As California’s farmers continue to seek solutions for the ongoing drought, this project will test whether Netafim’s Israeli-engineered subsurface drip-irrigation method — a series of pipes delivering water directly to the root zone – can help them grow more rice while using less water and fertilizer as it has in other Netafim USA pilots in various parts of the world.

How Israeli methods will help California

Over the past 18 months, BGU Prof. Eilon Adar has met several times with California legislators and water resource officials to describe how Israel, an arid country, has created a surplus of water through innovation, technology and effective water-management policies.

In meetings and at public forums, Adar explained that Israel is closing the gap between water supply and demand by improving irrigation efficiency, expanding wastewater reclamation and reuse, and engineering drought-tolerant crops.

“We are hopeful that this concept could provide farmers with a revolutionary form of rice production not only in California, but wherever rice is grown worldwide.”

“After evaluating a number of options to enhance water-use efficiency, Conaway Ranch decided to move forward with a subsurface drip-irrigation pilot project on a 50- to 100-acre area for rice,” said Adar, who is one of Israel’s leading water experts and former director of the Zuckerberg Institute at BGU’s Jacob Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research, Israel’s largest water institute.

“We’ve outlined the testing procedures necessary to maximize success, based on experience growing a variety of crops in arid climates using subsurface drip irrigation. The Zuckerberg Institute is pleased to be playing a leading role, providing knowledge and expertise to help California farmers reduce their water consumption,” said Adar.

Better for the environment

Lundberg Family Farms, one of the world’s largest producers of organic rice, is a partner in the pilot project.

“We are hopeful that this concept could provide farmers with a revolutionary form of rice production not only in California, but wherever rice is grown worldwide,” said Bryce Lundberg, vice president of agriculture for the company based in California’s Sacramento Valley.

“We are always looking to implement new technologies that can benefit growers and promote sustainable farming practices, and we hope that the project’s success can be duplicated to improve organic weed management while producing environmental and conservation benefits,” said Lundberg.

Prof. Eilon Adar, right, with colleagues at Ben-Gurion University. Photo by Dani Machlis/BGU
Prof. Eilon Adar, right, with colleagues at Ben-Gurion University. Photo by Dani Machlis/BGU

Netafim was founded at Kibbutz Hatzerim in 1965 and has grown into a multinational company. Netafim USA, based in Fresno, California, develops and manufactures drip-irrigation systems for agriculture, landscape and turf, greenhouse and nursery, mining and wastewater.

“As drought conditions persist, efficiency in every aspect of farming is critical to the sustainability of California farming,” says Scott Warr, Netafim USA regional sales manager. “Through research trials and partnerships, Netafim continues to be committed to providing growers with access to viable solutions that address the challenge of maintaining profitable farming in a resource-limited world.”