Squeezed between urban sprawl and lingering droughts, vegetable and fruit growers in California’s agricultural powerhouse, the San Joaquin Valley, are under pressure to reconsider the way they use water. Luckily enough, the Silicon Valley is stepping in to unlock the potential of Agriculture 4.0 in irrigation management. Will the benefits of the cooperation between California’s Silicon and Food Valleys trickle down to the rest of the world?
While agriculture makes up only 2% of California’s $2 trillion annual GDP, the San Joaquin Valley is one of America’s leading regions for agricultural production. With grapes, wine, nuts, citrus fruit and cotton representing its prevailing products, the valley provides 40% of America’s fresh produce. Blessed with a Mediterranean climate and fertile alluvial soils, the valley owes its agricultural success to the vicinity of the San Joaquin River and the Sierra Nevada mountains, which provide most of the much-needed blue water resource to farmers.
Coping with extreme water scarcity in the San Joaquin Valley: how can software companies contribute?
However, this bonanza is threatened by the aftermath of the five-year drought that afflicted California from 2012 to 2016, a phenomenon scientists say is poised to repeat itself as global warming kicks in and the nearby mountains’ snowpacks are dwindling. This adds to years of excess groundwater pumping by the local population: during the drought, trillions of litters of water were withdrawn from the aquifers without being replaced. Last but not least, pressure on the valley’s farms is now compounded by suburban encroachment on valuable agricultural land.
All this fuels the need for stronger water-use efficiency and yield intensification, which makes the Joaquin Valley the ideal location to develop data-driven farming solutions and turn entrepreneurial visions into products.
In 2011, the Californian Energy Commission awarded a $5 million grant to support the creation of an R&D cluster dedicated to smart irrigation in the city of Fresno, central California. Building on the University of Fresno’s know-how in fruit and vegetables growing and the Silicon Valley’s proximity, the cluster, called BlueTechValley, aims at connecting agricultural start-ups with AgTech ventures to develop and market ICT solutions for sustainable irrigation and yield improvements.
PowWow Energy, a provider of Software-as-a-Service solutions, along with scientists from the University of Fresno have joined forces to develop a programmable integrated irrigation system based on big data analytics. The system, called Irrigation advisor™, integrates pumps’ monitoring data with aerial imagery, weather transcripts and local farms water records. The software’s algorithms then mill these datasets and provide information on how water is being used, where it is lost, and how it can be put to better use. In its final version, PowVow’s Irrigation Advisor should provide end-users with energy savings of about 20% and a 15% increase in water-use efficiency compared to currently available irrigation solutions. This also helps reduce GHG emission, as water management consumes 4% of the Golden State’s electricity.
The main challenge for pressing ahead with Agriculture 4.0 consists of turning huge silos of data into valuable information for farmers, management zones for input applications, and actuation protocols for all types of farming activities. The physical proximity between Silicon Valley’s software companies and California’s fruit and vegetables growers is a mutually-beneficial coincidence: developments in the Golden State may play a key role in setting standards for getting all types of connected farming devices to talk to each other and unlock increasing value from the vast amounts of data they generate.