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A High-Tech Solution For a Thirsty Tree

ASK a Tulare County farmer about water costs or the five-year drought and you're in for a trip - out to the field. ``This has changed the way we farm,'' says Ophelia ``Buzz'' Fisher-Barnes, pointing to a licorice-thin stalagmite jutting from the ground beneath a lemon tree. Capped with a dime-sized sprayer, this so-called ``HP-40 circular emitter'' obviates the need for irrigation the old-fashioned way. No more furrows and trenches that guzzle water, says the lifelong farmer. No more waste through evaporation or oversoaking that may miss needed roots and often washes away fertilizer.

The emitter releases about 10 gallons of water per hour in the exact proportions of the tree's protective canopy, regulated by evapo-transporation gauges that tell how much each plant is losing to the atmosphere.

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Savings of water is about 20 to 30 percent depending on the crop, Ms. Fisher-Barnes says. Over a year that could amount about $150 per acre in pumping costs alone.

The technology was developed for the arid Middle East by Israeli companies and several American companies have since refined their own models.

Since agriculture uses 85 percent of California's water supply, emitters have become a big success since 1983. Fisher-Barnes says about 75 percent of the farmers use them. She says the cost is about $1,000 per acre, including labor, and is paid for by decreased costs in about three years.

``Not just water costs, but in fertilizer and the labor it takes to run your farm,'' she says.

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