CATAWBA -- The Wi-Fi cloud hovering over this farm field brings with it no rain to cool the cracked earth, or the poor humans sweltering between the two.

But the computer-aided irrigation system buried 8 inches underfoot that it monitors might one day protect crops from drought, farmers from ruin and people from hunger.

The "Smart Farm" project at Virginia Tech's Catawba Sustainability Center combines a commercial drip irrigation product with solar-powered soil monitoring in hopes of conserving water, increasing crop yields and reducing agricultural pollution.

Tech professors Jerzy Nowak and Joe Gabbard hope that the half-acre test bed will prove fields tended with this system can use less water and produce less pollution. If it works as planned, the system could also minimize the need for tilling, thereby reducing erosion, Nowak said.

For the developing world, such a system could revitalize small-scale, sustainable agricultural production in famine-plagued countries such as Somalia, Ethiopia and Sudan, where 11 million people are facing the worst drought in a half-century.

An image of that brighter future, complete with Somali Bantu farmers, exists at the Catawba center.

There, buried beneath the 16 rows of string beans, peppers, cucumbers, corn and potatoes grown by the owners of startup business Juba Farm, is the Smart Farm irrigation system.

Scattered around the field are 12 solar-powered nodes into which soil sensors can be hooked to monitor moisture and nitrous oxide, a byproduct of synthetic fertilizer. Through a wireless Internet connection, the nodes transmit the sensor data to a computer housed in an old, vine-draped farm building nearby.

When needed, the system delivers water and fertilizer directly to the roots of the crops. Because the water is delivered underground, evaporation is significantly reduced, saving money and reducing the spread of soil-borne plant diseases, Nowak said.

By introducing dissolved fertilizer in the water, farmers can apply much smaller quantities of that, too, saving money and reducing runoff blamed for fish-killing algae blooms in rivers, lakes and oceans around the world.

"Low-input" agricultural systems like this are likely to become more important as the global population grows to an estimated and unprecedented 9 billion people by 2050.

As the population increases, "water costs will only go up and up," Nowak said.

The same is true of petroleum-derived fertilizers, which after World War II were cheap and abundant in the United States, but since the 1960s have quadrupled in price, according to Nowak.

Juba Farm and the Smart Farm took root together on this plot of land a year ago, said Christy Gabbard, director of the Catawba center.

The Smart Farm project paid for the irrigation system and deer-proof fencing, while the Bantu farmers have provided the labor for this living laboratory.

The Bantu come from Roanoke, where they were resettled in 2004 after spending more than a decade in Kenyan refugee camps. They sell the produce from the farm at the weekly farmers market next-door under the banner Juba Farm, named for Somalia's Juba River valley.

For the Bantu farmers and for Nowak, this plot of land is a new beginning.

Nowak's first try at the Smart Farm project was interrupted by the April 16, 2007, shootings in which his wife, Jocelyne Couture-Nowak and 31 other faculty and students were killed.

As he grieved, Nowak worked for more than three years to build Tech's Center for Peace Studies and Violence Prevention headquartered among the remodeled rooms where so many died.

But, on July 1, Nowak retired from the peace center and from daily classroom teaching. Now, as a professor emeritus in the department of horticulture, he has returned full time to his own research.

The farm eventually will become a demonstration project for the community and for Tech students, Joe Gabbard said.

Gabbard, a professor at the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute at Tech, is developing a free mobile phone application to access the farm's data system, which will show the amount of water flowing to the crops.

One thing it won't measure is the sweat that went into them.

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