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Agriculture Technology Podcast: Irrigation Tech

Agriculture Technology Podcast: Irrigation Tech

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What kind of irrigation technology are growers utilizing today?

Paul McFadden, RDO Water, joins host Tony Kramer to discuss what today's growers are using in their fields, along with the water challenges they're facing.

Tune in to Episode #91 here:



You can read through the entire episode’s transcript, here:

Tony Kramer: Hello, everyone. This is Tony Kramer, product specialist with RDO Equipment Company and you are listening to the Agriculture Technology Podcast. Every day there are phenomenal advances being made in the field of agriculture technology. RDO Equipment Company is a leader in agriculture equipment and precision agriculture technology and is here where the industry experts to bring you the latest news and information from RDO and John Deere. Thanks for joining us on the Agriculture Technology Podcast. Welcome back to another episode of the podcast. This is episode number 91. Today we're going to be talking about some technology updates within the irrigation industry.

Before we dive into the show, please take a moment to subscribe to this podcast if you haven't already. You can subscribe to the show on the many different podcasting apps we're streaming this to. It's on Apple's podcast app, it's on Stitcher, SoundCloud, Overcast and many others. While you're out there drop us a review. We'd love to hear what you think about the show. Lastly, make sure to follow RDO Equipment Company on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and catch all of our latest videos on YouTube. You can also follow me on Twitter @RDOTonyK. Now with that, let's get back to the show. I'm really excited to welcome Paul McFadden. Some of you may know or have heard the name from a previous episode.

We talked a lot about kind of the state of water and what water really means to us in the ag industry and we felt that that episode was so intriguing and there was so much information to be shared that we actually asked Paul to come back on the show again to talk more about the technology within irrigation and some of the struggles with technology adoption in the irrigation industry. Again Paul McFadden, he's the director of purchasing with RDO Water. Thanks for joining us on the show again Paul. To get started let's just hear a little bit more about your background again and how you got involved in this industry.

Paul McFadden: Great, thanks for the invitation to participate again Tony, I appreciate it a great deal. My background is I've been in the ag irrigation business for nearly three decades with a number of manufacturers primarily. The manufacturers of drip and micro irrigation products including John Deere Water, the Toro company, Roberts Irrigation and now with a company I am proud to be associated with, RDO, based in San Diego helping with the purchasing of all those components and putting them together to make systems work efficiently for our customers.

Tony: Going back like I had mentioned, Paul, we had you on the podcast not long ago, episodes 84 and 85. We were talking about just kind of the state of water and what it means to the ag industry, how important of a resource it truly is and we didn't really get much time to talk about the technology within irrigation. Now you brought up a number of different pieces of technology that are going to help us move forward. That's why we asked you back on to the show. We really want to dive a little bit more into the irrigation technology and what is being adopted today and then what some of those struggles are. Why don't we start out just talking what type of technologies are there available within the irrigation world?

Paul: There's a number of technologies. There's soil moisture monitoring. There's devices that will manage and meter pumps, and flow meters and chemigation injection. There's devices that will look at imaging, whether it's drones, UAVs, if you prefer satellite imaging. NASA has become very deeply involved in imaging as it pertains to water, water storage, water capacities in the snow packs and such. There's a wide variety of areas where technology is being looked at and even applied in some areas to help folks do a better job of irrigating more efficiently.

Tony: I know myself I kind of look at irrigation, we don't have a ton of it here in the Red River Valley and kind of where I grew up in south central Minnesota but irrigation plays a huge role in the agriculture industry throughout the entire world. Speaking from my thoughts and kind of how I grew up, I always thought of irrigation as something just simple. You turn on the sprinkler, you turn it off or whether it's flood irrigation or the drip irrigation but there really is so much more technology behind it and maybe when I talk about it, maybe that's how it was back in the day but I'm sure within the industry and how long you've been involved, Paul, it's probably been quite amazing to watch it adapt and get some of this technology into the irrigation world.

Paul: It's an interesting point, it's a great question. I think there has been a lot of technology from various sources. Whether it's from a group like NASA or it's from Silicon Valley or it's organically grown up through the different manufacturers in our industry. There's a broad variety of folks that have tried to bring technology to the ag space, John Deere being one through their Farm Connect program but not many have stuck in the industry on a large-scale basis.

We've had soil moisture monitors around for 50 years but there's tensiometers, there's neutron probes, there's capacitance probes, there's all these different ways that people measure moisture but not all of them have been used on a continuous basis on farms, and I'm generalizing to a certain degree obviously, but not all of those have been used from say one irrigation manager to the next, is one of the things that we see is the lack of consistency with personnel with the turnover rates on farms today and the lack of labor that when a champion leaves a farm for another job for example as an irrigator, there's not always a like-minded person filling in to take on that role and do the same way with the same equipment they typically want to implement some of their own practices and use some their own equipment. That's been a hurdle.

I also think that if you look at just the irrigated ground in the United States versus the farmland, it's a minority of the farmland in the country outside of the pivot ground let's say for corn, cotton and soybeans that typically use mechanically moved irrigation systems or pivots. There isn't much in terms of drip and micro irrigation in the country. I think there's something like 13 million acres of irrigated ground using micro irrigation or micro sprinklers and drip and of that 13 million, 6 million of it is in California alone. A lot of it's on the West Coast, a lot of it's in specialty crops, either higher value crops and not as much in the corn, cotton and soybeans.

With those higher value crops just to give you an example, one acre of strawberries in California costs about $60,000 per acre to get those crops in the ground, get them growing and get them up to harvest. Where say an acre of corn is $250. A corn grower may not have the same resources as a strawberry grower in terms of dollars to invest in this technology which tends to be pretty expensive. Then the higher value of the crop will often dictate the need to implement a better technology to kind of monitor not only water but nutrients and everything else. Solar radiation, wind, all those things which come into play with a fruit like a strawberry that’s so delicate.

Tony: That's a really great point that you bring up going back to what you said about farm labor, utilizing the technology or maybe it's the cash flow or the capital that we have on a specific operation. Of course you get some of those high-valued crops like strawberries or you get your standard corn and soybeans. They're on a different playing field with each other when it comes to cost and what it all looks like. Going on more with that, those are obviously some of the challenges that we see with the adoption of technology. Are there other things that are holding people back from truly adopting irrigation technology?

Paul: Certainly. I think one aspect of it is the crop. Say a lettuce crop in Salinas that may be in the ground for 90 days, to put a monitoring system into a field and make sure that it's working correctly and set it up internally on a network system to be able to monitor it is far more labor intensive over a 90-day window to move that probe around the field every 90 days versus say a permanent crop system like grapes or trees or vines or trees, any of those kinds of things. You can put it into an orchard or a vineyard and let it set for 25 years let's say, and as long as it's working correctly you don't have to move it, it's much less labor intensive. The adoption rate for permanent crops I think is slightly ahead of the say some of the short-term leafy greens or vegetable crops.

I might also add, Tony, that the technology that's out there, there's technology-- You can imagine at the World Ag Expo a couple of weeks ago I did a quick search and there were over 200 companies selling technology into the ag space just at that one show. Many of them are soil moisture companies. I know of two companies in particular that have been around for say 10, 15 years. One was from Australia, one was designed and developed here locally in the western US, and both are no longer in existence. The company from Australia came in and invested over $40 million with a gateway and the ability to use different technologies and configure those into one gateway and they ended up selling the company for pennies on the dollar and going back to Australia.

The other company tried a different model to utilize their technology and it helped improve not only soil moisture but scheduling of irrigations. It went through a couple of venture capital groups and some funding and never got off the ground and literally sold for pennies on the dollar after investments of- estimates are as high as 10 to 15 million dollars. Both companies sold for less than a million bucks to the group that has them now. It's very difficult to build a model as a dealer or a manufacturer of this technology that makes money. Because if you go out and you try to build a network of installations, it's typically over a wide area. When I was at Deere Water, we had two people that were covering the entire United States, installing and maintaining soil moisture probes.

They were always on planes and it's just not sustainable. I guess the question would be, who's going to service these units? Is it the dealer or is it the manufacturer? Can the manufacturer generate enough of these sites within a close proximity to where they can have one person serving that and maintaining those systems or is it going to be spread out? I think we did some back of the envelope math on a basic soil moisture probe with the internet service for that or the cellular or satellite service. One dealer would have to sell about 150, 160 of these units just to break even by the time they hired a technician with the burden and benefits and the pickup and so forth to put him in the training to get them out in the field.

160 units, you'd have to have a very concentrated area for that to make sense, and then for one person to get around and service each of those units, that's a tall task. I'm not sure we're quite there yet in terms of building a model that’s sustainable long term for the industry. Whether it's through dealers or directly from manufacturers to farmers.

Tony: Speaking on that line of hardware, you brought up a really good point about the expo you were recently at that over 200 different manufacturers offering some sort of an irrigation technology and you talked about the level of support and everything and it brought up a really good question that I had. Who understands these systems? The dealers sell this hardware. Do the dealers also truly understand the agronomics behind it and give that advice? You talk about a standard or a typical kind of a crop advisor or an agronomist or what have you, we see that when it comes to pest management and soil fertility and all of that but you don't really ever hear about an agronomist specifically talking irrigation or giving that type of advice. Where do the farmers go to when it comes to the irrigation systems?

Paul: [laughs] If you have any answer to that let me know and you and I will go into business together.

[laughter]

Paul: That’s an excellent point. Typical irrigation dealers across the country, my experience has been that they are engineers, designers of irrigation systems. They put components together and selling their components or systems to farmers. Farmers go to dealers for irrigation advice and then PCAs or pest control advisors or agronomists for growing advice. The irrigation dealers are typically-- It's my experience that typical irrigation dealers are engineers, designers of irrigation systems, putting components together from various manufacturers, building a system and sometimes installing it and even maintaining it for that grower. Their mindset is not in the service mode or model.

It's very difficult for a dealer to get their head around selling a service, like a soil moisture service or an agronomic service. I'm not sure that that's a good fit yet. There's a few that have cut across that bridge but very few and they've gone out and hired folks with agronomic backgrounds, with irrigation backgrounds and have kind of meld those two together. Now on the other hand you've got pest control advisors or crop consultants or crop applicators, pest control folks that specialize on the agronomic side but don't necessarily have a good handle on the irrigation side so there's a gap there. Irrigation scheduling is a huge issue and a lot of it is just done by touch and feel and kind of a gut sense of what needs to be done.

Tony: Whether it's the purchasing of the hardware, knowing where to go for advice or it's just truly understanding the irrigation systems, what do we need to do as industry professionals to better push the adoption or get past some of these challenges? What needs to happen to increase the adoption of irrigation technology?

Paul: Well, I think there's a couple of things we should do as an industry. I think we have to first of all promote efficient irrigation. There was a recent study that was shared with me by Dr. Charles Burt of Cal Poly where the irrigation training and research center at Cal Poly went out over a 10-year period and tested hundreds of irrigation systems to see how uniform they were. In other words how much water was being put out at the first emitter in a field versus how much was being put out by the very last emitter in the field. With the drip and micro irrigation the theory is we want to put that out, the water nutrients out across that field as evenly as we possibly can. Systems right now that they tested were at about a 0.88 or a 0.87 distribution uniformity, so that means there's a 13% variation from the best to the worst.

Now, if we can improve that by 5% to where a typical new system is operating or is designed to operate at-- because nothing operates perfectly, because we're human beings and designing something perfectly doesn't always come out well. If we can get up to a nine, a 0.92 or a 0.93, and raise it by five points, there's an unwritten rule that that also equates to yield. We can increase our yield and the quality of yield by another 5%. I think if we show farmers that here is a system that will generate an additional 5% to your yield, hence improving your bottom line, I think folks are going to be more willing to listen. I don't think we've told that story well enough.

I also think that there're some things that we need to address in terms of education. We need to do a better job going through the university system, through consultants, through dealers, through manufacturers, through associations of here are some tried-and-true systems that truly work and this is how to operate them. I think that a lot of systems are very complicated and you need a PhD in computer science to operate some of these things. I don't think that it has to be or needs to be something that is overly complicated on its own platform. A lot of these systems operate on distinct platforms. We don't have an Apple or a Google platform for all the ag technology out there which could be useful, makes it easier.

A dashboard, for example, that's easy to read in many different languages, where growers or irrigators could make informed decisions by looking at a dashboard on various areas, nutrients and plant health and pest pressure and soil and moisture, and here's your solar radiation and your wind direction and speed and things like that. I think all those things combined, and I hate to say it, but it has to be financially sustainable as well. Growers have to see the benefit. Dealers, if they're going to support that, need to make some money at it and be able to service it. The manufacturers of those things have to do a better job of working together and making that more efficient as well.

Tony: There's a lot of different things, it sounds like, that we can do to help promote irrigation technology and everything that's going on in the industry. With all of this stuff, whether it's the hardware and components or it's the education like you're saying, where can our listeners go to learn more? Who can they talk to?

Paul: There's a number of resources. The Irrigation Association has a lot of resources. There're some great universities that specialize in ag irrigation and ag engineering. At Cal Poly, as I mentioned earlier, they have Irrigation Training & Research Center. At Fresno State, the Center for Irrigation Technology. Colorado State, Texas A&M, Florida State. There's some good programs out there with a lot of good information. There's also a lot of the manufacturers that provide information, too, online. People can go and look at different technologies and see how they work.

I think the last groups that I would throw in there are folks like Western Growers or different trade associations that have speakers that discuss these kinds of things, that post their discussions and presentations where folks can go. The California Irrigation Institute, where I just recently spoke, had two full days on technology and infrastructure and that kind of thing. There's some great private, public companies that provide a lot of great information on this. Going to have to do some digging, but it's there.

Tony: Well, once again, Paul, we have got an episode here packed full of information. When it comes to irrigation, you're definitely the go-to guy. You have tons of industry experience and a lot of knowledge. I really appreciate you sitting down with me once again and talking about the irrigation industry, some of the struggles that we run into, and some of the wins that we have as well. Thanks again, Paul.

Paul: You're quite welcome. Thank you for having me.

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Learn More:

Learn more about our irrigation division and services provided by visiting the RDO Water website.

Take a listen to all our episodes by visiting our website's Podcast page, or tune in wherever you listen to podcasts (SoundCloud, Stitcher, iTunes, and more). 

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