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How math is growing more strawberries in California

BY Rebecca Jacobson  July 11, 2014 at 1:42 PM EST
Using numerical models, mathematicians can help farmers grow strawberries for less water in the parched Parajo Valley. Photo by Flickr user Sharon Mollerus

Using numerical models, mathematicians can help farmers grow strawberries for less water in the parched Parajo Valley. Photo by Flickr user Sharon Mollerus

Farming takes more than sunshine, water and good soil. It takes math. Mathematicians are helping farmers use numerical modeling to boost strawberry and raspberry production in California. Numbers can tell farmers how to make the best use of their limited water in the berry-producing Pajaro Valley.

“As mathematicians one of the things we were hoping to offer was a different way of looking at a problem. What can we plant, what’s the rotation strategy — so that’s the type of thing we hope to use mathematical approaches and algorithms to analyze,” said Kathleen Fowler, a mathematician with Clarkson University.

For example, algorithms and models show farmers where their water is going during irrigation. When the water moves out of roots’ reach, it’s time to turn the water off, says strawberry farmer John Eiskamp, saving a precious resource in parched California.

It’s not just about putting more fruit in your shopping cart, says Estelle Basor, deputy director of the American Institute of Mathematics. She grew up in a farming family, and understands how any small decision can have massive impact on crops and livelihoods.

“I’m not sure a lot of the public realizes the risks involved. So if we can just help smooth out some of the decision making process, help solve a few of the problems that the growers might have, I think it’s a really good step forward,” she said.

Science correspondent Miles O’Brien has more on this story for the National Science Foundation series “Science Nation.”*

*For the record, the National Science Foundation is also an underwriter of the NewsHour.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story listed the location at the Parajo Valley. The correction spelling and location is Pajaro Valley. Estelle Basor was also listed as the president of the American Institute of Mathematics. She is the deputy director.