During last summer’s drought in Michigan – the worst in the last half-century – Michigan State University researchers managed to increase cucumber production on a test farm at the Southwest Michigan Research & Extension Center near Benton Harbor … by 146 percent.

cucumber leaf

Even more significant, they achieved these results in sandy soils that are particularly vulnerable to drought, normally allowing rainfall and water provided by irrigation to drain quickly away from the thirsty roots of plants. To combat that, the MSU team used a new technology that inserts water-retaining membranes below the root zones of plants.

Developed by Alvin Smucker, MSU professor of soil biophysics and an AgBioResearch scientist, the subsurface water retention technology (SWRT) process uses contoured, engineered films, strategically placed at various depths below a plant’s root zone to retain water. The membrane spacing also permits internal drainage during excess rainfall and provides space for unlimited root growth.

“Where highly permeable (sandy) soils have prohibited the production of food,” he says, “water retention membranes reduce quantities of supplemental irrigation, protect potable groundwater supplies, and enable more efficient use and control of fertilizers and pesticides.”

Given that the food and agriculture sector is a major contributor to income and employment in Michigan’s economy – accounting for an estimated $91.4 billion in related economic activity annually and nearly one million jobs* – university research projects such as Smucker’s can offer remarkable productivity gains for farmers that spread throughout the region.

“The return on investment for the installation of these membranes, which improves the yields on a broad range of crops, is less than one year. Plus, this is a zero-maintenance system with sustainable water-holding capacities up to 300 years,” says Smucker. “This could have a major impact on providing food and bio-based energy for the future.”

*Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, 2012

Photo by ExplicitImplicity [CC-BY-2.0], from Wikimedia Commons