By Lauren Smiley
The Central Valley of California doesn’t begin so much with a gradual change in the landscape as with an abrupt line. Suddenly, a barren plain that looks like an apt cue for “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” theme song is interrupted by the first row of leafy, irrigated crops.
Since the 1930s, the region has run on human control of water, carefully distributing the melting mountain snowpack through reservoirs and dams, pumping stations and irrigation pipelines, through drips, sprinklers and intentionally flooded fields. Combined with groundwater pumps, the system turned the valley’s Mediterranean and desert climates into the country’s produce basket, producing one-fourth of the country’s food on just 1 percent of its land.
Recent years have brought severe droughts that have forced farmers to become more efficient with water use. With nearby Silicon Valley teeming with the promise of efficiency and data-fueled intelligence, a natural relationship between technology and agriculture has developed.
For decades, many farmers let the irrigated water flood over their soil to sink in. Some still do. They would inspect rows of fruit-bearing trees to try to spot the thirsty ones. They dug up soil samples to feel in their hand. It was all very analog and imprecise.
“We were taken aback by the fact that some of our best ranch managers, who we thought had it all figured out, still had quite a bit of error going on under their watch,” said Zac Ellis, a senior agronomist at Olam International, a multinational grower that farms 12,000 acres of nuts throughout California. “Through no fault of their own — just the lack of visibility.”
Growers are getting help in making their field conditions more visible with venture capitalists sinking billions in recent years into a growing number of agtech start-ups.
A share of this new crop of businesses is dedicated to what’s known as precision agriculture — the Platonic ideal of providing just enough water, fertilizer and pesticide that a crop needs for maximum yields in an era of climate change and increasing global population. The United Nations estimates that the world’s growers will have to produce 70 percent more food using just 5 percent more land by 2050 — and technology is seen as the force that will get them there.
Among the new start-ups are those flying planes over fields to capture highly detailed images, seeing factors that the naked eye and even satellites cannot. The flyovers use heavy, sophisticated imaging cameras that provide growers with an unprecedented level of data about their crops, including where they need water or, just as importantly, where they already have enough.
One company, Ceres Imaging, began in 2013 while its founder, Ashwin Madgavkar, a Texas-raised engineer, was working on his M.B.A. at Stanford University. Ceres uses high-resolution cameras to capture various wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum — measuring the amount of light reflected by the crops in near-infrared as well as green, blue and red edge. A separate thermal camera measures the radiation emitted by the crops, which allows the company to calculate their temperature within a degree Celsius.
Software then runs this data through proprietary algorithms to calculate the water stress down to the individual crop level. Artificial intelligence interprets the resulting patterns to identify what is causing water shortages. For example, a row indicates a problem with that particular irrigation line. Another algorithm generates a chlorophyll index — which can help detect a lack of iron or nitrogen, showing where plants may need more fertilizer.
The company’s tools rank the issues that the farmer should consider, and Ceres reps can also consult with growers on the phone or in person, and visit fields to investigate issues.
The increased use of the imaging has been striking: A Ceres survey revealed about 30 percent of specialty crop acres in California — with products like nuts, grapes, broccoli, artichokes and cucumbers — are being imaged aerially, half of those with Ceres. TerrAvion, a competitor also based in the Bay Area since 2013, is imaging fields in the United States, Canada and Brazil.
“There’s a myth out there about the slow-to-adopt farmer,” said John Bourne, Ceres’ vice president of marketing. “Name another industry where you’ve had A.I.-powered technology adopted this quickly.”
Ceres has 100 employees, the majority based in its Oakland, Calif., headquarters — with small teams in the Midwest, Argentina and Ukraine — and has expanded to irrigated crops throughout the West, to the Pacific Northwest’s apples, potatoes and pears, corn and soybeans in central states, and is experimenting with tropical crops in Hawaii. The company originally used drones, yet quickly realized planes were better for hauling the heavy imagery equipment and allowed them to cover more customers during peak sunlight.
Another reason for the quick uptake is simple economics. The wine grapes and nut industry have higher profit margins than commodity crops, so have more incentive to spend money trying new technology.
Alex Bergwerff, a 32-year-old Central Valley grower, was well-primed to be one of those early adopters. After studying at California State University, Fresno, he worked at a series of agtech start-ups, landing as a sales manager for an app that let growers digitally control and monitor their irrigation lines. Now as a farm manager of Winters Farming, Inc., he drives out to almond, walnut and grape fields in his Chevy truck with his Samsung tablet and smartphone plugged into his dash to check the apps that help him run his ranches — an Oakley-sunglass-wearing version of Matthew McConaughey’s farmer of the near-future in “Interstellar.”
The Ceres flyover of his almond ranch in Oakdale, Calif., in June revealed a couple rows of trees showing up as red, the color that indicates severe stress. After investigating, Mr. Bergwerff found those rows’ drip irrigation tubes had, for whatever reason, been shut off. Images from other farms showed what turned out to be a twisted irrigation line that was preventing water from flowing, or that trees on hills weren’t getting as many nutrients as the ones on flat land.
“What it allows more than anything is for us to be more efficient,” he said. The imaging allows his workers to focus on the problem spots, rather than endlessly driving and walking the rows.
Mr. Ellis, the agronomist at Olam, said he had hired Ceres to fly over the company’s pistachio, walnut and almond farms in California for years: “We nerd out to the images once a month.” He said now that the ranches were more efficient with irrigation, there was less room for error given the surrounding soil had less of a reserve of water. The images helped him pinpoint problems before it affected his yield.
He was able to detect that fertilizer put in the irrigation stream was not reaching half a field in the middle of growing season. Before imaging, Mr. Ellis said “we would have figured it out at harvest, but it would have been too late.”
Also useful, he added, was the Ceres tool that calculated a crop’s estimated yield, allowing him to calculate whether intervening in low-performing areas with more water or fertilizer was worth the cost.
“I wanted to fix those areas and make them better producers, but after crunching the numbers, it didn’t make sense,” Mr. Ellis said. “So I, in a sense, saved a lot of money by not doing that.”
The only drawback to the service itself, Mr. Bergwerff said, was the price: about $4 an acre, though he said it did pay for itself. Depending on the frequency, type of crop, and level of analysis, the service can run up to $30 an acre.
“I wish we could do it more,” he said. Still, he admitted that daily or weekly flights could make for an overload of information. Already, between interpreting the aerial images, joined with his other technological tools like remote irrigation apps, a spreadsheet of watering times and weekly sample tests, the nature of work for farmers like Mr. Bergwerff had changed.
By the end of a workday buried in analyzing information on screens, Mr. Bergwerff said he felt the same as many desk toilers: He just wanted to unplug.