Wireless sensors and GPS-guided irrigation are helping early adopters cut use. But there are barriers to widespread use.
One Startup's Story
PureSense was founded four years ago by a team of technologists and farmers determined to give farmers a better sense of what's going on in the ground on their farms, beyond just giving them weather data and related calculations such as ET. Farmers have been "running blind for years," says John Williamson, co-founder and chief operating officer of PureSense, which says it has about 200 customers, mostly in California.
PureSense's system relies on monitors in the ground that include wireless transmitters, at least one wireless weather station, and software on farmers' PCs, which they use to access and analyze the data held on PureSense servers. (Other companies such as Acequia and Hydropoint apply similar technology to landscape watering.)
There are a lot of challenges to getting a system right. Each one needs to be calibrated to a farm's particular conditions--some might need a probe every 150 acres, others every 20 acres if the soil is more variable or the crop types are more water-sensitive. That's one of the limits on PureSense growing its business: It takes a lot of staff time and resources to deliver a unique system and build the trust of farmers.
But it's necessary for vendors to be so service-intensive because past failures have made farmers wary of IT, Williamson says. Too often, systems are sold without the support to make it work in that particular farm. "Selling a grower a piece of hardware that collects data isn't of much help," he says.
Apple and peach farmer VanKonynenburg, a customer, describes PureSense as a "tool in its early stages." He pushes the PureSense team to improve the product, and he credits them with listening. "They're a little less confident than they were two years ago, but they're providing better information," he says.
Consider that change VanKonynenburg wanted to make, from collecting data every 15 minutes to collecting every minute. The solar panels in the field that run the probes and transmitters couldn't power that much data transmission over the wireless network. PureSense had to recode the systems to allow data to be collected and held, then sent in a bundle every 15 minutes.
VanKonynenburg is still using ET calculations in parallel to the soil moisture data monitoring, and he considers both when making irrigation decisions.
VanKonynenburg also is looking for more uses for the data he's collecting on soil moisture, temperature, and sunshine. He'd like to use the dashboard he gets from PureSense, which is focused on irrigation decisions, to determine risks for certain pests, fungus, and bacteria, to know when best to spray for them. Like any busy executive, he wants one decision-making dashboard.
Irrigation, like most elements of farming, won't become automated. It's no different from providing greater visibility into a supply chain or sales pipeline: Soil moisture provides insight into what's happening in the fields and allows more informed decisions, but there are still critical judgments to be made. "You need data, and then you need smart people with enough experience to interpret that," VanKonynenburg says. "A lot of those decisions are subjective."
Solar-powered, wireless links
Rogers believes that as well--and the data that this 57-year-old almond farmer is getting has him rethinking some of his long-held ideas about the water trees need. With four years of data in hand, he thinks he may start irrigating trees slightly in early December, something he's never done. "I'm thinking I've been wrong," he says.
Rogers and VanKonynenburg share something besides a faith in technology to improve farming--it's a belief that farmers are going to face mounting pressure to cut water use, and they need to prepare for it. VanKonynenburg has what are considered long-term water rights, which come with the land, but he knows the political climate could change. "Just because this is where my grandfather settled, I don't think those long-term rights are bulletproof," he says.
VanKonynenburg's trust in technology goes back 20 years, when he unpacked a TRS 80 computer and ran a cost accounting and payroll system on it to figure out the real costs of activities like running a tractor per acre. He considers such moves good business, but admits it's also his passion. "Some people have guns, some people race boats, I like this stuff," VanKonynenburg says.
Not that he jumps on every technology trend. While he could access his moisture sensor data on an iPhone, he laughs off the idea. "I'm 69 years old," he says, adding that checking data once a day on the computer is fine. Then, a moment later, VanKonynenburg can't help but confess: "I suspect that a year from now, I will be carrying one."