Automation Saves Water and Money for Cranberry Growers

By Mary Greendale and Annie Cheatham

With the award of the $186,861 CIG grant and 11 growers willing to participate, Brian Wick, the CCCGA's director of regulatory services, worked with KC Enterprises Ltd. of Buzzards Bay, Mass., to design and manufacture the Internet-based automation system. This system was comprised of a control panel mounted in the grower's pump house. This control interfaced with the engine controller, throttle control and pressure regulator gauge. The control panel accessed the Internet via a wireless modem, utilizing cellular signals. The system was battery powered, with impact-resistant solar panels used to recharge the battery. A hard-wired temperature probe was used to measure bog canopy temperature.

Two different types of systems were installed. Ten growers utilized Internet-based (cellular) auto-start systems and one grower installed a radio-based system. The latter ultimately had problems and was abandoned. The functionality of the systems was similar. These systems were designed to allow for automatic start/stop of irrigation pumps based on either preset temperature thresholds or scheduled irrigation events.

A password-protected website allowed the grower to remotely start/stop the pumps, schedule an irrigation event and input settings for desired pump speed (RPM), pump start-up/cool-down time, water discharge pressure and temperature high/low tolerances. Additionally, when the system was running, the grower could monitor RPM, coolant temperature, battery voltage, oil pressure, water discharge pressure and run hours. The grower could also receive notification of pump start via a text message or email.

Not all growers were eager to be part of the pilot project. Brad Morse, chairman of the CCCGA and president of Double M Cranberry Company in Rochester, Mass., described his own reluctance by saying, "Change is difficult for any stubborn Yankee farmer." Morse watched from the wings as the pilot project encountered problems with the auto-start systems. However, he figured that if the pilot demonstrated that the automated system could save water and money, he'd look into it.

EQIP primes the pump

As a result of the successful pilot, the CCCGA succeeded in getting the USDA/NRCS to approve automated irrigation systems as a conservation practice, which made cranberry growers eligible for cost share of 50 percent from the Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP). Once the systems were working well and money was available, word spread.

Today, Morse has all five of his bogs automated. He received the 50 percent cost share from EQIP and admits he could not have afforded the installation of five pumps at $12,000 each without those funds. He especially appreciated the system late this winter when early warm days pushed blossoms along, and then the growers had to cope with a longer-than-usual frost season. "I could cycle the system on and off as needed. I could start the pumps all at one time and monitor them from the cab of my truck. I can even use my cell phone to control the pumps. It's amazing what the system can do."

The results

The automated systems have been a big success. On average, growers save two hours of water on each frost night. That figures to approximately 9,300 gallons of water per acre, or 280,000 gallons of Massachusetts water for a typical growing season. Now that growers are more comfortable with the systems, it is likely that water savings are even higher since growers use the systems to cycle pumps on and off as temperatures fluctuate. Growers also saved on fuel, labor, mileage and pump life. According to Morse, the system helps him manage time better. "I am overly happy with the system and would recommend it to anyone, but it took me two years to come around." If you'd like more details on the project, please look at the final report posted on the CCCGA website (

Collaboration brings results

The Cape Cod Cranberry Growers' Association is a member of New England Farmers Union (NEFU), a membership organization which is part of the National Farmers Union. NEFU raises awareness in Washington, D.C., about the issues faced by New England farmers. The National Farmers Union was the only national farm organization to support the regional equity provisions of the 2008 farm bill, which ultimately provided for a minimum of $15 million annually to underserved states for conservation programs including EQIP. The CCCGA and NEFU continue to work together on wetlands regulations and other issues that confront cranberry growers in Massachusetts. For more information, visit www.NewEngland

Mary Greendale is a freelance writer and grant writer who frequently works with the CCCGA. Annie Cheatham is the executive director of the New England Farmers Union.