The next time you bite into a juicy blueberry, chances are it came from Chile, the world's third biggest producer. It might even be grown using IAEA "know-how" that is helping Chile´s farmers use less water and fertilizer, stop soil degradation and boost harvests.
The Agency is working with Chilean farmers, agricultural companies and researchers to improve blueberry cultivation and production in the central-southern regions of the country -- Especially in orchards cultivated on otherwise marginal land on hillsides or in acidic soils. Field experiments already show a 20% increase in yield, a strong result that bodes well for farmers. If experimental trials hold true, the higher yields could see the country´s blueberry exports increase by an estimated US $6 million per year. The country markets the berries principally to the United States, Japan, and countries in Europe.
The IAEA-supported farming approach is known as "fertigation", which means that both water and nitrogen fertilizer are applied through drip or spray irrigation systems that supply the water and nutrients directly to crop roots where they are needed. This is unlike traditional methods, where water and fertilizer are broadly applied to an entire field or orchard of crops.
From preliminary estimates, the approach costs relatively little to set up, about $9,000 per hectare, and promises annual income from improved yields of around US $20,000-40,000 per hectare. The process is guided by nuclear-based techniques and instruments that are used to monitor soil water, nutrient status and crop conditions on the spot, supplying essential data to identify and sustain efficient water and fertilizer management practices. The result is that cost-effective steps can be taken so that crops better absorb the water and targeted nutrients.
"Clearly, the original investment for drip irrigation is tiny compared to the potential increase of yield," says Mr. Pierre Moutonnet, an IAEA expert. While bigger farming operations would be the first to invest, he points out that small farmholders are prime beneficiaries down the line.
Main benefits derive from less use of fertilizer and water, which saves money and conserves precious resources. Scaling back on fertilizer also helps to protect people and the environment against nitrate pollution. For example, it's estimated that each year tons of fertilizer for every 2,000 hectares of blueberry crops could be saved. In this context, a major achievement was to develop sofware that optimizes the fertilizers needed by fruit crops throughout the year.
The IAEA is transferring knowledge about fertigation in Chile in multiple ways. Training and equipment is being provided through a series of collaborative farm trials and research experiments, as well as "field days" and educational seminars. "Chile has a good scientific base to move ahead with fertigation, which requires expertise to manage," says Mr. Moutonnet. "A big plus is that good relations and contacts are in place to work with local farmers and agricultural companies to pass on the 'know-how'."
So even if you don´t like blueberries, take heart. Fertigation trials have begun on raspberries, apples, peaches and other cash crops. They show promise, another sign of Chile's aims to boost sustainable agricultural development.