Offering a preview of the future of farming on the water-strapped plains that overlie the dwindling Ogallala Aquifer, real working farms that double as Kansas water technology farms showed off some of the latest soil moisture probes, canopy sensors and other technological wonders at field days held across the region in late summer and early fall.

At a water tech field day in Goodland, students and faculty at Northwest Kansas Technical College displayed and demonstrated a drone — not the flimsy kind you can buy at Walmart, but a six-foot wide machine weighing around 50 pounds equipped with “see and spray” capabilities.

It is believed to be the first and only drone of its kind licensed for use in Kansas, according to operator Mark Dickey, who offers a popular adult education class on drones at Northwest Tech.

“There’s been more interest in it than I thought we’d have,” Dickey said of the 8-week course, adding that he’ll probably add a second session this fall to keep up with demand.

Operating a drone doesn’t require a pilot’s license, like Dickey has, but definitely should include an introductory class on how to safely and legally operate one, he said.

“We’re trying to spread the word so people are more cognizant of what the laws are,” he said.

In Goodland, area farmers had a chance to view other examples of see-and-spray technology, along with the latest moisture sensing equipment, data capturing software and computer mapping programs.

Drones provide a handy eye-in-the-sky that is now being used to inspect wind turbines, oil and gas lines, and roads and bridges, Dickey said.

For farmers, they can aid in the adoption of increasingly sophisticated irrigation systems, he added.

Crop sensors that are bolted to the sprinkler to measure canopy temp and water stress are being replaced in some cases by thermal imagery using drones.

Inspecting sprinkler valves is another application where drones are useful.

“Farmers with dozens of sprinklers like this can’t physically check each one, but you can do that with a drone,” Dickey said.

The necessity of checking and repairing individual nozzles, sensors and valves is one of the hindrances that has held back wider adoption of variable rate irrigation technology, according to Josh Nienhueser, a Nebraska-based territory manager for Valley Irrigation.

He estimates that only about 10 to 15 percent of irrigated farmers use variable rate technology, but added it is much higher — closer to half — among those with auto-reverse capabilities on their pivots.

Variable rate technology allows farmers to control speed and flow rates, based on computerized precision ag prescriptions that have been customized for each field.

“The biggest opportunity is where we have extremes in soil types within the same field,” he said.

By controlling individual spray nozzles, farmers can optimize inputs, dispensing not only water but also nitrogen fertilizer and even some pesticides, in very precise doses, he added.

As regulations rise and water levels go down, “that could be huge down the road,” he said.

The technology is also getting more user-friendly for adjusting on the fly, he said. Farmers can now use a cellphone app to reduce prescribed irrigation rates following a rain, he said, citing one example.

“It will continue to improve, and we’ll get the cost down on it,” he said. “It also becomes more useful as we start to get better quality data.”

Water tech farms like the one at Goodland are part of an innovative program that allows farmers to participate in having the latest precision ag technology installed on their farm in exchange for hosting educational events. The program receives financial backing, oversight and coordination from the Kansas Water Office and Kansas State University.

Armando Zarco, a water resource planner with the Kansas Water Office, oversees 15 water technology farms that extend from St. Joseph in the northeast to Garden City and Liberal in the southwest.

Setting up the farms requires a three-year initial agreement. New farms are welcome to apply to join the program but need to do it soon, because next year’s contracts will be finalized around Thanksgiving time, Zarco said.

Each year the Kansas Water Office compiles a detailed report that gets uploaded to the website for all to review.

“We are always looking for new technology and new vendors to bring in,” Zarco said. “We are open to making this better and improving on it.”

Water tech farms are one example of how the eight states that share the aquifer are exploring ways to conserve groundwater while maintaining vibrant agricultural economies. Since 2018, those efforts have been linked together through the Ogallala Water Coordinated Agriculture Project, funded by USDA.

Project Manager Amy Kremen, who is based at Colorado State University, said she is starting work on the next Ogallala Summit to be held early next year in the Texas panhandle. The initial summit, held in Garden City in April 2018, was met with enthusiasm by participants, who welcomed the opportunity to network, share ideas and enhance cross-collaboration.

Kremen said organizers are looking forward to following up and building on the momentum generated at the first summit.