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Executive Perspectives

EXECUTIVE PERSPECTIVE: Improving farm yields with less cost and environmental impact

Tim Nixon

21 Dec 2018

In this piece, we hear from Bruce Moeller, the CEO of AquaSpy, an innovative firm which provides actionable intelligence to farmers so they can make real time irrigation decisions to increase yields.  The approach reduces the likelihood of excessive use of irrigation, pesticides and herbicides.  Tim Nixon, Managing Editor, Thomson Reuters Sustainability.


Tim: Why did you start Aquaspy?

Bruce: In fact, I didn’t start the Company. Some agronomists in Adelaide Australia thought that there had to be a better way for farmers to be able to tell whether or not their fields needed irrigation than going out into the field and digging a hole to insert a twig or branch to whatever depth in order to discern whether or not it seemed wet or dry. So they designed a probe that had one or 5 or 10 sensors to become an electronic twig. These were heavy and over designed and consequently very expensive. Plus you still had to go out to the field and take a data logger to upload some simple measures from those buried sensors and at the end of the day (although it was probably like the end of a week or two once they finally got out there to check it), the Farmer had an expensive non-intuitive electronic twig or branch that told him if that ground at that depth was relatively wetter or relatively drier than it was the last time he or she had checked. This was principally driven by needs from drought stricken areas like Australia, Israel, and the American west coast where water can be scarce, restricted, expensive to obtain or all of the above.

Consequently, a prevailing mind-set took over which was that you watered when you had to in order to keep the crop alive rather than to strategically water with precision at depth such that the crop didn’t just stay alive but thrived to become the biggest yield possible within the constraints of nature. So draught tolerant seed varieties were introduced and the subtle but deeply ingrained operating philosophy within the industry was one of conservation by necessity and this subtlty invaded designs and thinking throughout Agriculture and in Agtec it manifested so pervasively, that it became the unquestioned doctrine; save resources, sacrifice yield in order to stay alive and live to plant another season where maybe the water Gods may smile more generously the next time.

So they thought.

When I first got involved with this business in 2009, Australia was in the midst of what ended up being a ten year drought and water was scarce and obviously key to being able to plant a field at all in the first place.

We bought the Company with the current group of investors in June of 2010 and extricated operations out of Adelaide and started up from scratch in San Diego California which gave us an opportunity to question everything and every assumption embedded within because we were neither from Australia nor from Agriculture.

After drilling into our Agronomists like a 3 year old famously does as he perpetually badgers his mother with why Mommy? Then follows up every response with Why Mommy? An exasperated PHD Agronomist looked at me after failing to be able to defend the logic of a relative measure showing water available at depths below where the active root zones are foraging, he responded, “well, It is the current state of the art, it’s better than nothing”.

To which I replied, “Great, I can see out tag line now, “” AquaSpy, it’s better than nothing!””

That exchange really unlocked the creativity within our organization because we then set about questioning everything to unearth the inherent biases within the industry that like the frogs slowly boiling in water, never even noticed as it got hotter and drier.

For example, we began with why a Farmer would elect to grow a crop in the first place, and stunningly, it wasn’t in order to save water! Shocking as that premise was, he plants with the expectation that he will at the end have both a commodity and a pre-existing market demand to consume it, so the more yield he gets, the more he makes from a revenue perspective.

So without dragging you through each epiphany and revelation, we eventually came to a foundational principle that drove every design decision and how we would evolve the culture of our Company, our raison d’ etre.

We built a system that improves yield from 10% up to 40% guaranteed with our strong statistical correlation of fields following our YES (Yield Efficiency Score) process and oh by the way, by doing this, a by-product became a de-facto savings of water, energy to pump it, and the NPK fertilizer elements not leaching through to the groundtable.

How is that possible?

It turns out, that when the active root zone meets the available soil supply (at depth at the time at which the crop is seeking to ingest it), then instead of missing that opportunity to get those expensive inputs into the stalk of the plants themselves, the active roots (we tell them when and where those roots are hungry to consume), suck it up into the body of the plant, the plant gets bigger and bigger, the fruits are multiplied to steal a phrase, and that corresponds to yield.

The better you are at putting water and fertilizer into the plants (which are mostly 85% to 90 some odd % water anyway), the less you’ve wasted, so you’ve conserved way more efficiently than when you were focusing solely on that, and you sell more of the fruit or vegetable you are taking to market, and we collectively feed the world as efficiently as possible, all accomplished by the simple economics of balancing supply and demand.

Tim: How is business?

Bruce: I suppose steady would best represent our business now. We have designed our system to have the lowest cost of goods in the industry and we make our money on the software and algorithms that convert the sensor data into actionable alerts and alarms for the Grower to maximize his yield , and so we don’t try to make our money on the hardware (have been selling at cost because the hardware is not the point; just the data turned into information). Every year we add almost exactly 1,000 new data subscriptions while retaining the current installed base to a 90% plus retention rate and although we do sell through our US dealer network, we do not market through traditional means but have mostly grown through word of mouth and have only just begun to attempt inroads into international markets with the Ukraine and Russia providing our best penetration to date.

Tim: How does Aquaspy help make farms more successful?

Bruce: A Grower can look at any one or all of his fields on line and see icons (such as a gas gauge of energy available within the active root zone and also what’s below the active root zone as a reserve tank), and make decisions to follow the YES process and resultantly getting his 10% to 40% yield increase along with the water, chemical, and pumping cost savings by-products by eliminating imprecise waste.

Tim: What is the average rate of return for implementation?

Bruce: Of course we all have to recognise that when growing, there is a dual combination of nature and nurture. So while I can guarantee you that no crop will grow without the blessings of Mother Nature, as she provides the sun, humidity, rain supplements to irrigation, and even the DNA of the seed itself, I can also confidently represent that no Grower also doesn’t believe that his own efforts, the nurturing part of the nature/nurture equation, have no material effect either.

So what I specifically mean by that, is when a Grower makes his decisions on his nurturing elections, he plays a part in either incrementing or decrementing the yield he will ultimately take to market.

So let’s take the upper end extreme of the fastidious Grower who diligently earns a perfect YES score of 900 and did indeed get a 40% yield improvement. Maybe he is extremely humble and in his heart, he believes he only accounted for 10% of that phenomenon, because Mother Nature smiled broadly upon him that year.

Well then, our humble Nurturer drove up yield by 10% (of the 40% as he attributes the other 30% to Mom Nature), and he may have saved 2 inches of water (Mother was kind so she rained a good bit this season), and maybe because he was placing the fertilizer in the right place at the right time, he saved 20% on chemicals going into the crop and therefore NOT into the ground-table. In that instance, he would realize something in the 1,000% return on investment.

Yes, it turns out that knowledge is not only power but also profit.

Tim: What is the failure rate?

Bruce: The equipment is very reliable and really the paradigm under which we operate is that this is a cell phone (and designed for operability and reliability) that gets buried into the ground for the crops to phone home to tell us when they are hungry or thirsty and where (depth) they are currently dinning. Think of it as a Grub Hub delivery system right to the plants’ metaphorical mouths. The real failure rate is when the Grower mistakenly thinks of us as the old paradigm of an electronic twig or branch to simply tell him as an irrigation scheduler, when to water and when to “save a turn on the pivot”. So many sad failures in that scenario that we all lose in that instance. Otherwise, it operates like a cell phone reliability wise with an occasional tower going down or failure to connect every time but the system saves all the data for upload the next time it connects, even if it were to be over an entire season (never has happened of course but you can get an occasional dropped call in a given instance only to be recovered and connected the next call 5 minutes later). The real message for us to get across though, is just like a cell phone that works perfectly, if you speak gibberish into the phone, you will not have communicated with the other party, so if the plant calls home and says I’m starving at the 40 inch depth and you say, that’s ridiculous, I just watered and it’s soaking wet on top where I can see it, then that ignored call for sustenance will have cost him yield in the end (plus he ran his pivot too fast and is getting runoff and not penetration to where the active root zone is foraging).

Tim: Could Aquaspy be scaled globally?

Bruce: Yes of course we built it for scale and we already could increment by tens of thousands of subscriptions without adding to staff or infrastructure and we also have a language conversion table built in so for example, when a Russian is installing our system in his field, our Communication Tower speaks to him in Russian and talks him through the entire installation sequence until we and he know that the installation was done correctly and made both cell tower connections as well as having hit our back end servers to begin the process of data conversion to turn sensor signals into gas gauges, root depths, electrical conductivity measures (fertilizer proxy), and many more translated discussions from plant speak to human web browser readable understanding.

Are there competitors?

Yes there are many but none who do anything near or like we do with our absolute measures and all of the translation into actionable icon conversions detailed above. Most pervasive are single sensor like you might find in the garden section of a Home Depot where you have a small two prong sensor you randomly place inside a pot (but a whole field in this case) and get a relative indicator of whether the soil became wetter or drier so you should water it again or skip it this time. Actually, the pervasiveness of these simple “better than nothing” sensors are a major impediment for us because we first have to disabuse people of what we actually do, so very contrasted to what they don’t do. If all you see is an irrigation scheduler, then yes we all can do that, but the difference is maybe metaphorical to having a cell phone conversation contrasted to reading smoke signals.

Tim: Could Aquaspy data contribute to a global science initiative to monitor climate?

Bruce: We measure moisture, temperature, and EC at every depth from 4 inches through to 48 inches and at every 4 inch interval. So we see changes by longitude or latitude or soil type or crop root behaviour as they occur and as they evolve over seasons and over years so having the world’s largest repository of underground temperature, consistency, and root behaviour along with absorption and planting date start and end dates could theoretically be a gold mine for some climate scientist who speaks that language.

Currently all of our signal translations and resultant icon generation speak the language of yield and of from and to Mother Nature. If a climate scientist wanted to instead change the cell phone reception spectrum from the current plant roots with Mother Natures language to the larger spectrum of Mother Earth itself, the signals are there, we’d just need the proper translator.

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