Despite its rigorous climate and relatively short growing season, Quebec, with 12,800 t of strawberries marketed in 2015, is the third largest strawberry producer in North America, behind the states of California and Florida (Statistics Canada, 2016; U.S. Department of Agriculture, 2016). The province accounts for more than 50% of strawberry production in Canada (Statistics Canada, 2016). In a context of increasing water scarcity worldwide (Fereres et al., 2011), one of the greatest challenges for Quebec’s strawberry producers is to achieve more sustainable water use through the large-scale adoption of improved irrigation management practices.
Although Quebec has a relatively humid climate and a negative “potential evapotranspiration (ETP)–precipitation (P)” balance (Agrométéo Québec, 2017), supplemental irrigation is a requirement for strawberry production in the province because the crop is often field-grown under a plastic mulch. Because strawberry plants have high water requirements and a shallow root system, they are particularly susceptible to water stress (Krüger et al., 1999; Liu et al., 2007; Manitoba Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development, 2015). These considerations point to the critical need for strawberry growers to adopt appropriate irrigation scheduling methods to optimize plant growth, yields, and crop water productivity. Irrigation management studies have been conducted on a wide range of crops, soil types and climatic conditions. In drip-irrigated strawberry crops, irrigation based on soil matric potential (ѱ), with irrigation thresholds (IT) expressed in kilopascals (kPa), has been shown to positively affect crop yield and crop water productivity (CWP) at ITs ranging from −10 to −15 kPa compared with drier regimes (Bergeron, 2010; Evenhuis and Alblas, 2002; Guimerà et al., 1995; Hoppula and Salo, 2007; Létourneau et al., 2015).
In silty clay loam to clay loam soils with a high proportion of shale fragments; however, Létourneau et al. (2015) reported that the advantages of the ѱ-based irrigation management could be limited by the spatial variability of soil properties or by inadequate wetting patterns of the subsurface drip irrigation system. Indeed, observations and simulations in these soils clearly showed a dominant gravitational flow, with limited plant available water (Létourneau and Caron, 2017), a behavior usually found in sand and coarse sand soils but not in fine textured soils like these. This unexpected behavior is attributed to the high proportion of shales found in these soils, which does not influence their texture (shales are sieved out for textural analysis) but affects their hydraulic conductivity and their water desorption curves. In Quebec, nearly 40% of the strawberry production area is characterized by these highly permeable soils (D. Bergeron, personal communication). The low soil water holding capacity of such soils leads to rapid water movement below the root zone, and irrigation may result in water and nutrient losses and groundwater pollution (Dukes et al., 2003; Skaggs et al., 2010). Nonetheless, more frequent and short-duration (pulsed) irrigation events have been shown to better match plant water uptake by improving soil water distribution (Assouline et al., 2006; Coolong et al., 2011; Eid et al., 2013), and irrigation can be managed on a time- or soil-measurement basis (Muñoz-Carpena et al., 2003). The positive effects of pulsed irrigation have been demonstrated for several crops grown in sandy soils (Dukes et al., 2003; Eid et al., 2013; Muñoz-Carpena et al., 2005) and in silt loam soils (Coolong et al., 2011), where yields were maintained despite reductions in the amount of water applied compared with nonpulsed irrigation. For strawberry plants grown in a highly permeable silt clay loam to clay loam soil, ѱ-based pulsed irrigation significantly increased yields and CWP compared with nonpulsed irrigation based on ѱ (Cormier, 2015; Létourneau and Caron, 2017).
Although manual ѱ-based pulsed irrigation does not require production or irrigation system modifications relative to nonpulsed irrigation based on ѱ, it may be more complex to manage, potentially leading to increased labor costs for watering. In this case, automatic-control pulsed irrigation based on preset ѱ limits (Muñoz-Carpena et al., 2005) may be a more convenient way to manage irrigation (Dukes et al., 2003) for strawberry grown in highly permeable soils. Ançay et al. (2013) showed that an automated irrigation system could improve pulsed irrigation relative to manual pulsed management by lowering labor costs and water use in a strawberry crop in Switzerland. However, thus far, no economic analyses have been done to determine whether ѱ-based pulsed irrigation generates enough additional benefits compared with ѱ-based nonpulsed irrigation to cover the cost of an automated irrigation system for strawberry production in North America.
Our study aimed to assess the economic impact of adopting pulsed irrigation instead of nonpulsed irrigation, considering that both methods are ѱ-based with the same IT. It also aimed to assess the cost-effectiveness of investing in an automated irrigation system, given the potential gains associated with pulsed irrigation.
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