Under an incandescent Nicoyan December sun, rancher Mauricio Pineda intently demonstrates every detail of his new drip irrigation system that waters the grass that feeds his cattle in the summertime.
In the middle of his 5-hectare field, Pineda explains to the other producers and university and municipal officials gathered here that his system injects small amounts of water into the ground through a series of tubes and drippers. From there, the plants’ roots absorb that water and the fertilizer that’s dissolved in it.
The system costs just over ¢5 million, and with it, Pineda can maintain 90 head of cattle in the summer, and at the same time, demonstrate that it is possible to save water in agriculture, one of the industries that most wastes water in the country.
“There’s no reason to waste,” Pineda says as he shows off the drippers, which are tiny holes in the tubing that is inserted in the ground. “You only have to give the plant exactly what it needs.”
Drip irrigation helps save up to 80 percent less water than that used by other methods, according to the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA). IICA says that drip irrigation is one of the world’s most efficient methods of water use for agriculture. Water distribution is localized and targeted, and doesn’t rely on massive spraying or flooding of large land areas, which is common in most of the agricultural practices in Central America.
In Costa Rica, this type of irrigation is used by few companies and on few crops, said Didier Moreira, a technical specialist for IICA’s project Euroclima.
Some multinational melon and watermelon companies have used it due to the process’ efficiency in irrigating and fertilizing, along with a few local sugar cane producers, Moreira said.
In a province that anticipates strong droughts in the near future and where agriculture uses a significant amount of water, paying attention to Pineda’s experience is crucial to preparing for a worst-case scenario.
“About 75 percent of the water the country, and also Guanacaste, consumes today and that comes from aquifers is used for irrigation in agriculture,” Yamileth Astorga told The Voice of Guanacaste in an interview last September.
And the Return?
Pineda won’t have to wait years to see the fruits of his investment. In the summer of 2016, he noticed how his cattle maintained milk production and the number of births. Unlike his neighbors, Pineda didn’t lose any cattle during the dry season.
“Here (in Nicoya) it’s normal for production to drop by up to 60 percent if you don’t take care of the cattle. I, however, am able to keep up production,” Pineda said.
For now, the rancher doesn’t mention specific numbers, but he is working with the University of Costa Rica to determine the yield in economic terms.
Zootechnician and University of Costa Rica researcher Luis Pineda said the plan is to cut grass that was grown with drip irrigation to compare it with grass grown without using a technique to evaluate the amount of proteins, carbohydrates and nutrients that each harvest has to provide more conclusive results to share with producers.
The experience, however, has shown them that they’ve been able to maintain production, and “that’s already a win.”
If It’s So Efficient, Why Isn’t It Used More?
“The greatest limitation to wider distribution (of drip irrigation systems) in our countries is that it requires technical know-how and strict and very close supervision,” said IICA’s Moreira.
Drip irrigation has existed for at least three decades, but it’s used on less than 20 percent of cultivated land, according to information from IICA.
The researcher and the rancher – both named Pineda – agree that the biggest challenge was finding well-trained companies to provide the service and technically explain how to clean the system’s filters and what type of fertilizer to use.
Public policies also are needed to motivate producers to more efficiently use water.
“We need to promote more policies that help small producers finance these highly efficient systems to guarantee food production and that with fewer resources we can produce the same,” the IICA specialist said.
According to Jorge Vallejos, an official from the National Institute for Rural Development who participated in the field visit to Mauricio Pineda’s farm, that institution has resources and specialists that can help producers install new irrigation alternatives with much more potential for success than in the past.
Now, says Mauricio Pineda, banks and other institutions also should share the same point of view.
“The National Emergency Commission gives me 100 bundles (to endure the drought), and that lasts for five or six days. I can’t do anything with that. I can do much more if they give me good credit,” Mauricio Pineda said.