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Benchmarking agricultural water use in key commodity sectors - WU0122

Description
Benchmarking is a process whereby continual improvements in business efficiency are achieved by comparing an individual’s performance against achievable ‘best practice’ standards. In the UK, the technique has been used in various aspects of agribusiness relating mainly to production costs but has not been applied to water use and efficiency. However, experience from other countries has shown that irrigation efficiency can be significantly improved by comparing how individual farms perform with industry best practice. For example, farmers in Australia use benchmarking to make objective comparisons between their own irrigation performance and that of ‘best practice’ elsewhere. Similar approaches are also in use in Spain. Confidential web-based systems enable farmers to input their irrigation data and to see how they compare with others who are irrigating under similar circumstances.

Benchmark indicators typically relate to irrigation abstraction volumes and application depths, crop production, business processes, and environmental impact. Irrigation benchmarking could provide UK growers with a means of comparing, in confidence, how well they are performing relative to their statistical neighbours and help to answer key questions such as “how well am I doing compared to others?”, and “how do I improve?”. With rising energy costs (for irrigation pumping), coupled with increasing limitations in water availability and reliability, benchmarking may well help UK growers increase their water productivity and profitability, whilst minimising their environmental (especially water and carbon) footprint.

The objective of this project is to develop a benchmarking system to improve business and water use efficiency in irrigated agriculture in England and Wales. It will be developed and tested on two key commodity sectors, potatoes and strawberries, but the approaches will be transferable and applicable to a broader range of agricultural and horticultural crops. These two crops represent sectors where water is an essential component of production, helping to deliver high quality continuous supplies of produce. Collectively, the two crops account for over half the total national irrigated area and volume of irrigation water applied – developing a benchmarking system for growers in these sectors first is likely to deliver the greatest immediate impact on water efficiency in the food and farming industry.

The objectives of the project will include (i) defining a set of relevant benchmarking indicators, (ii) deriving a set of benchmarking datasets for the two commodity sectors by collecting, analysing and integrating relevant data from a range of sources, (iii) developing and testing an online benchmarking system, and (iv) delivering a communication and knowledge transfer campaign to promote the economic and environmental benefits of irrigation benchmarking. The approaches will take into account temporal (year to year) and spatial (location to location) influences on irrigation water use, including crop cultivars being grown, climatic and soil variability, differing crop production systems, irrigation practices, water sources and water availability. The methodology will also take into account the costs and benefits of irrigation, the implications of water use on yield and quality (specifically the role of supermarket grower protocols on production), and the likely impacts of new and emerging technologies on future irrigation water use.

The benchmarking system will need a ‘home’ so that it can survive and develop beyond the timeframe of this project. We have chosen the UK Irrigation Association for this role as a respected, independent organisation that we believe has the trust of the irrigation community. The UKIA has a strong reputation for knowledge transfer and supporting the wise use of water for agriculture and is the ‘home’ of a growing internet information source on all aspects of irrigation in the UK. The UKIA will be closely involved in developing and implementing a knowledge transfer plan that will scale-up the benchmarking process to other irrigated sectors.

Once the benchmarking system has been implemented, further downstream benefits will follow, via a knowledge transfer and communication campaign to promote the economic and environmental benefits of benchmarking to the wider irrigated farming community, working closely with local and regional stakeholders (NFU, CLA, UK Irrigation Association), the water regulatory authority (Environment Agency) and industry levy boards (Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board). The outputs from the benchmarking system will provide benefits not only to individual growers, but will also help raise the profile and importance of water efficiency within the agri-industry, and provide new information and data in support of government policies aimed at improving water allocation and resource efficiency.
Objective
7. (b) Objectives

1. To define a set of benchmarking indicators for assessing the performance of irrigated agriculture and horticulture in England and Wales.
2. To derive a set of irrigation benchmarking datasets for key commodity sectors by collecting, analysing and integrating relevant data from a range of sources.
3. To develop and test an online irrigation benchmarking system.
4. To develop and implement an appropriate communication plan for knowledge transfer to promote the economic and environmental benefits of irrigation benchmarking.
The rationale is to develop and implement a benchmarking system to improve business and water use efficiency in irrigated agriculture in England and Wales. Using a range of performance indicators, the system will (i) enable growers to benchmark their performance against others and against industry ‘best practice’ (optimum water use) and (ii) help them identify appropriate measures that will help to ‘close the performance gap’. The system will be developed and tested on two key commodity sectors (potatoes and soft fruit), but the approaches will be transferable to a much broader range of field-scale agricultural and horticultural crop types.
Project Documents
• FRP - Final Report : Cranfield Benchmarking Final 31July2013   (3129k)
Time-Scale and Cost
From: 2009

To: 2012

Cost: £238,958
Contractor / Funded Organisations
University - Cranfield
Keywords
Arable              
Environmental Protection              
Horticulture              
Sustainable Farming and Food Science              
Water Quality and Use              
Water Use