Making use of water and technology

Confronted by water limitations during the 2018-2020 drought, Australia's biggest olive producer is undertaking a sweeping survey of technologies capable of supporting better water use efficiency across the company's more than two million olive trees.

Boundary Bend, the company behind well-known olive oil brands Cobram Estate and Red Island, is driving an initiative to evaluate a range of systems, including remote sensing and low cost sensor technologies, to better understand the relationship between water use and productivity.

For producers like Boundary Bend, there is no shortage of agtech products promising more effective water management, however the substantial investment of time and money required to properly evaluate and compare the options is beyond most.

For this project, the University of New England's Applied Agricultural Remote Sensing Centre (AARSC) is leading a wide-ranging technology evaluation in collaboration with NSW DPI, Central Queensland University, the Australian Olive Association and CERES airborne imaging.

Each partner brings a particular expertise to the program.

The trials being run by AARSC are evaluating whether remote sensing imagery sourced from satellite, airborne and ground-based sensors can accurately measure the impact of different irrigation programs on tree health, yield and oil quality.

The objective is to develop irrigation regimes that use less water but retain optimum productivity.

The remote-sensing imagery will also support the evaluation of competing brands of low-cost sensors for monitoring soil and tree health, with the aim of finding a practical, reliable and cost-effective sensor system that can support Boundary Bend's drive for irrigation efficiency.

Boundary Bend’s day-to-day operation already employs people to monitor irrigation efficiency, including measures of soil moisture, olive tree health and productivity.

However, Boundary Bend's grove manager, Rachel Walker, said the satellite and sensing technologies provided new insights into water use.

"We're interested in refining how we apply water during crop development, when there are critical stages during which the tree's olive-bearing capability is set according to the amount of water available to it."

"Olives are hardy trees, so we often can't detect a problem that will reduce yield with the naked eye.

“Remote sensing is exciting, because the sensors allow us to see when parts of a grove are stressed even though we can't see that on the ground."

Although Boundary Bend's irrigated olives are already highly productive, even small gains across more than two million trees – in olive production and water use efficiency – could make a significant difference to the company's bottom line.

Professor Andrew Robson, director of the AARSC, said the project was an important example of industry, universities, government agencies and commercial entities coming together to resolve questions that are beyond the scope of any single organisation.

"We are privileged to be able to work on a project that has such scope for developing an integrated solution of technologies and practice change," Professor Robson said.

"The results will not only help optimise Boundary Bend's water usage, but help ensure the ongoing resilience and productivity of an essential agricultural industry."

Leandro Ravetti, Boundary Bend's technical director, said that the company has been actively investing financial, technical and human resources aimed at maximising the sustainability of its groves.

"We have been working for years now to achieve a waste zero operation improving the utilisation of our by-products and carrying out practices to boost our carbon sinking capabilities.

“On the agronomic side, Boundary Bend Olives has always been at the forefront of applied technologies to manage our resources through our ‘Oliv.iQ’ system."

"The incorporation of remote sensing to our irrigation and fertilisation standard operational procedures is just a natural progression of our philosophy of trying to utilise all tools available to maximise returns per unit of water or fertiliser applied minimising the chances of any wastage.”

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