From robot vacuum cleaners and doorbell cameras to social media and e-commerce, technology is continually transforming lives and businesses. The world's oldest industry – agriculture – is no exception.
Remote sensors are all but eliminating the need for farmers to walk plant rows and make decisions based solely on observations, experience and intuition. New technologies that gather and analyze data can optimize crop needs, reduce environmental impacts, increase efficiency, cut energy costs and save water. The latest innovations were on display at the fourth annual Open Farm conference Oct. 23 in Tulare.
A demonstration by PowWow Energy showed artificial intelligence technology not only improving farming, but also spinning off new ideas and local businesses in rural communities. PowWow supports farms who have solar panels with information to optimize their return on investment. By monitoring weather, utility rates and meters, and the panels' energy generation, the company calculates precisely when energy losses caused by dust on the solar panels are valued higher than the cost of cleaning them. When it's time to wash the panels, farmers receive a text notification.
That got Tulare County dairy farmer Justin Roeloffs thinking about the growing need to efficiently clean dust from solar panels. He built a solar panel cleaning system that was so effective, he started a business – Roeloffs Solutions – to offer panel cleaning to other solar owners, creating new jobs in the farming community.
“The almond season is a disaster for solar panels,” Roeloffs said. “Some farmers buy a kit and do it themselves, but we had many calls for our service the first month in business.” Last summer, Roeloffs Solutions cleaned panels that generate 30 megawatts of power.
The founder of Concentric Power, Brian Curtis, explained the business he built to manage the energy usage and needs of large food processors, beginning in the Salinas Valley. The system allows businesses to save money on their energy bills, maximize the use of renewable energy and maintain reliable energy availability, even during blackouts and brownouts. Concentric Power combines wind, solar, co-generation and battery storage to develop a company's own micro-grid.
“The recent public safety power shutoffs are ringing our bell,” Curtis said. “The stars have aligned for us.” So far three Salinas Valley food processors and one in Bakersfield have installed the micro-grid systems. Curtis said energy intensive ag industries – such as dairies, cheese processors and wine producers – are potential clients.
A variety of other automation solutions were also shared at Open Farm:
- Darryl Hadlich of WiseConn said the company's precision irrigation timing system – monitored by infield sensors and controlled by in-field nodes – allows farmers to schedule, start and end irrigation and fertigation using their cellphones or desktop computers. The associated software also shows when energy companies offer lower, off-peak rates to enable irrigation scheduling when the cost to operate the pump will be at its lowest.
- Conner Kingman of Kingman Ag Service is perfecting technology to reconfigure the tractors farmers already own with artificial intelligence-aided computers to pull a wide variety of farm implements through the field, such as a spring tooth cultivator, mower, shredder and sprayer. The driverless tractors reduce labor needs, and enable farm work to continue around the clock without breaks or worker safety concerns.
- Jose Baer at PowWow Energy detailed programmable irrigation systems for small and large farming operations. The field is monitored with aerial images and uses data from in-field sensors for targeted water application.
- John Cardoza of Sustainable Conservation explained a collaborative research project that studied methods for dairy wastewater management using sensors, sand media filters and drip irrigation. In the study, nitrous oxide emissions were cut by 70%, water use by 36% and nitrogen applications by 45%.
During a researcher and industry panel on the state of technology integration from the grower's perspective, participants reflected on how technology will help prepare for the future. The panel was moderated by Dennis Donahue, director of Western Growers Center for Innovation and Technology:
- Director of the Tulare County Resource Conservation District Mike Chrisman, a long-time Tulare County farmer, noted that data will be increasingly critical for farming as California agriculture enters the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act era in 2020. The law requires that California groundwater usage be “sustainable” by 2040 – meaning that the amount that is drawn out must match the amount that is recharged. “This will change the way we all do business,” Chrisman said. “Agriculture in 20 years won't look like it looks today.”
- Jeff Dahlberg, director of the UC Kearney Agricultural Research and Extension Center and a sorghum extension specialist, said high technology companies will rely on UC researchers to confirm that their products are meeting expectations. UC scientists can contribute by applying their knowledge on plant growth and development. “We understand biology and how plants use water,” he said. “We will be asked to ground truth technology.”
The event is a collaborative effort by UC Agriculture and Natural Resources, Fresno State's BlueTech Valley, the California Energy Commission, PowWow Energy, West Hills College and the Western Grower Center for Innovation and Technology. Open Farm 2019 was hosted at the Southern California Edison Energy Education Center.