Charles Barrett

Charles Barrett 

UF/IFAS Extension agents are the Johnny Appleseeds of agricultural innovation.

Farmers already live on a knife’s edge of risk, so they’re rightfully reluctant to take a chance on something before someone demonstrates to them that it works.

Charles Barrett is one of those someones. As an Extension regional specialized agent for water resources, he has scattered the seeds of technology to hundreds of  Suwannee Valley farm sites in the past two years. Initially skeptical farmers now cannot imagine how they got by without a soil moisture sensor.

The valley now has 1,000 sensors saving farmers on irrigation costs and preventing the leaching of untold amounts of nutrients into the aquifer.

Barrett has extensively studied the science behind soil moisture sensors, the subject of his Gator Ph.D. He takes that science to Farm Bureau members through field days, farm visits, training sessions for county agents and trolley tours of the North Florida Research and Education Center, Suwannee Valley, where he works.

I had occasion to hear from Barrett a few weeks back on one of those trolley tours during the Farm Bureau’s Suwannee CARES event at the center.

The soil moisture sensors require an investment — $2,000 to $2,500 a piece, Barrett explained. But Hugh Thomas, executive director of the Suwannee River Water Management District, was on the tour, too, and he explained that the district subsidizes the cost for growers in the area, so the investment pays off much more quickly.

The returns, Barrett explained come in several forms. Water bills go down as the sensor can warn against overwatering. There can even be greater yields as a result of the more finely tuned irrigation the sensors make possible. By reducing the incidence of overwatering, it also prevents the leaching of nutrients below the root zone.

Water is way too important to be the stuff exclusively of academic journals. That’s why IFAS two years ago hired a Charles Barrett for each of the five water management districts in the state to bring water science to stakeholders. Each has a different type of water expertise tailored to the region. It so happens that Barrett’s turf is prime ag land, so he thinks farms first.

Among the many investments made in the Suwannee center in recent years was a Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ best management practices mini-grant for Barrett to buy 10 sensors to loan out to agents to demonstrate on your farms.

I was honored to join Bob and center farm manager Ben Broughton in front of the stage at Suwannee CARES as the Farm Bureau recognized NFREC Suwannee Valley for its environmental stewardship, in part on the strength of Barrett’s water work.

Jack Payne is the University of Florida’s senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources and leader of the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences