As drought-stricken California cuts water supplies to some farmers in the Central Valley, those who are still growing face the ongoing challenge of how to make the best use of the little water that's left. Tech for smart irrigation can help—but most smaller farms can't afford to use it.
A new app and set of sensors is cheap enough that it's aiming for widespread adoption. It works by tracking how much water is needed in different parts of a field, and then telling an irrigation system exactly how much water to use, and where.
"Land is not uniform," says Isaac Bentwich, CEO of CropX, the company making the new system. "So applying uniform irrigation is actually overwatering parts of a field while under-watering other parts." Soil might be sandy in one area, and filled with clay in another. Since fields are never perfectly flat, the slope of the land also changes how much water is needed.
The new system, developed by researchers in New Zealand and Israel, manages to monitor an entire 125-acre field using just three or four sensors. "It automatically analyzes each agricultural field, using powerful cloud-computing big-data algorithms, to accurately determine irrigation zones in the field—that is, to determine which parts of the field tend to be ‘soggy’ and retain water more, and which tend to be drier," says Bentwich. The software then calculates the best position for each sensor to accurately create an irrigation map of the full field.
Each day, the sensors beam data to the cloud to create the map, and automatically trigger sprinklers to adjust water flow. The farmer can monitor everything remotely from a smartphone.
"While all this underlying science and technology are highly complex, the user experience, through our mobile app, is simple, and is streamlined to fit the farmer’s current workflow," says Bentwich. "A recent USDA survey shows that 90% of all U.S. farmers currently do not use any tool for optimizing irrigation decisions. If it isn’t simple, inexpensive and no-risk, farmers will simply not use it."
By saving as much as 25% of water used in irrigation, the system is designed to help farmers in water-stressed regions make it through difficult seasons. "Farms are often limited in the amount of water they have access to, especially towards the end of the irrigation season, as their wells and underlying aquifer literally dry up," he says. "Any water saving translates directly into significant crop yield boost."
After five years of testing the technology on farms, CropX closed a $9 million round of Series A financing on June 22 to expand the company. The startup is part of the Farm2050 collective, an initiative launched last fall to bring Silicon Valley tech to the Central Valley.
"We were excited about how [CropX's] solution is rooted in the software, rather than the hardware," says Dror Berman, managing partner of Innovation Endeavors, an early-stage VC fund that helped launch Farm2050. "The beauty of the solution is in the way their algorithms can monitor and measure variations in topography with just three sensors."
The collective helped connect CropX with partners to lower the cost of the product, and will provide continuing support with the UX design and customer research. It's the same sort of thing they're doing for other startups in the agtech space.
"We recognized that for agtech companies to get to scale and be successful, it takes a lot more than just capital," Berman says. "Challenges in reaching scale include finding the right distribution channels, demonstrating immediate value, overcoming 'the hardware hurdle,' and replicating the sales process in a non-linear way."
CropX, now with $9 million in the bank, hopes to help meet some of the water challenges agriculture faces. "We often forget just how critical is the role of agriculture in our water crisis," says Bentwich. Since agriculture uses 70% to 80% of total water in a state like California, even a small savings of 10% to 20%—which the company says it can deliver—is as much as every city uses in the state.