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New high-tech irrigation system comes to the Mid-South

Smart Farm Systems aims to make big moves

When Brandon Finch first grew interested in irrigation technology, he was working the 7,000-acre family farm in northeast Arkansas’ Caraway.

“The idea came to Ryan Heringer, a longtime friend, who owns an automation sales and installation company in Jonesboro. Ryan was demonstrating I-phone control features on a system just installed at a local farmer’s house when the farmer suddenly said: ‘Man, if you could monitor and control my irrigation system like that, I would be in.’”

The penny dropped and “Ryan called his technology buddy Bob Farinelli, who retired from a well-known automation company equipment manufacturer. Bob has 26 patents and is an engineer who wants to solve big problems, and this is a big problem. The three of us chatted, and Smart Farm Systems was born.”

The ball really got rolling in 2013 with the company’s first beta site deployment. “Over the next three years, with multiple design enhancements, we expanded the feature set and proved the technology could scale to large area farms. With a fully functional product on a large-area farm to demonstrate, we then took on some investment partners to help us commercialize the product. We’ve raised a total of $2.5 million over the last two years, which funded the completion of the software apps, building out the organization and inventory to fulfil orders with. The majority of the investment money came from Arkansas landowners, people in the field who understand that automation will save a tremendous amount of money, time and water.”

Needed tech

Finch says people in the ag industry “understand that this technology is needed and can make a positive impact on two of every farmers’ most invaluable resources: time and water.

“This kind of technology has already been integrated in the pressurized pivot irrigation sector by multiple equipment suppliers. Flood and furrow irrigation has widely varying ranges of acreage to irrigate and use several different ways to apply water on crops. With all the different setups that are currently being used in the flood/furrow irrigation market it’s very hard to quantify all the inefficiencies until Smart Farm systems came along.  

“We apply tried-and-true measurement and control technologies with state of the art wireless radio modules to create a very scalable precision irrigation solution that applies just the right amount of water, at just the right time, on a field-by-field basis.”

Research studies have indicated that this kind of technology could improve farm profitability by 5 to 12 percent, says Finch. “There is no way a farmer can physically manage all their irrigation units, take care of their crop’s needs and manage a farm’s business needs without suffering from losses due to lack of real-time monitoring, telemetry and automation. The fact that we are over- or under-watering and wasting lots of time and money because it is not possible to tend to 80 pumps at once doesn’t require a lot of studies, the obvious solution to this problem is a system like ours.”

The team

Both Finch and Heringer come from family businesses and decided to step out on their own to expand and grow. “We know the customers and we know how to service their needs,” says Finch. “Bob and his engineering team has decades of experience in creating simple, elegant engineering solutions to complex problems. I’m confident that if I can get people to see how this technology will change the way they operate, they will be on board.

“In farming there’s a delicate balance of hands on, delegating and taking care of office work. When you touch all these areas your time becomes very valuable and you need to use it as efficiently as possible.   No other business in the world would accept the inefficiencies going on at the pump.”

How might the technology fit in with the Arkansas Water Plan?

“This technology can do a tremendous job mitigating the water issues we’re facing. The meetings for the plan typically focus on building infrastructure for tail-water recovery and surface water retention. However, remote telemetry, monitoring and control are beginning to creep into those discussions. Regardless of how close to the surface groundwater may be today on your farm, tomorrow it will likely be lower, pointing to the obvious need to conserve in all aspects of irrigation and water use.”

There are 60,000 known wells just in the state of Arkansas. “At an average pumping rate of 1,500 gallons per minute, if you could save just one hour of pumping it would mean 5.4 billion gallons of water saved annually.”

Ease of use  

“We can monitor and control existing electric, natural gas, and diesel engine pumps. We’ve focused on RF technology so farmers don’t have to depend on cellular connection. Our data communications work like CB radios – they transmit back to the farm HQ and then to the Cloud if cell service is available. Now, if you do have cellular coverage, you can control the system through an Apple or Android device. But if not, you can always control it through your PC at the office.

“Our systems nodes are independent, standalone, self-sufficient. If something happens, the system sends a notification it went down and the tech knows what’s needed to fix it. If a node failed, the well will still be operational. You can literally cut the wires from our device and everything operates the same -- we do not replace any control panels at the pumps with our own. I’m very proud to say that in three highly-focused years of beta testing, we’ve had zero failures due to equipment.

“We are basically turning farms into proprietary, wide area networks, with an intuitive, easy to use interface. Within that system you can manage pumps, moisture zones, weather stations, water levels, and maintenance schedules. Since we can see TAC speed, battery voltage, flow rates and runtimes, we can help you be more efficient in preventative maintenance tasks. You can set service intervals and monitor when they have been serviced and who serviced them. It also gives all of the parts information about the unit being serviced so the person taking care of it will know what parts are needed before they leave the shop.

“Another cool thing about Smart Farm Systems interface (app) is the three tiers of management feature. This allows the farm owner to give more or less automation control to managers and employees on the farm.  The lowest tier management basically allows everything to be monitored without any control.”

Future plans 

Now, with four years of in-field beta testing under their belts the team, says Finch, “has developed a killer feature set in the process -- one that gives the farmer just what he needs to better manage field operations. Right now we are finishing software validation testing and will go to market the third quarter of 2017.

“In the first year we will sell to farmers direct in our home base area of Arkansas while we complete our dealer training and development package. Our product will not be available for sale on the internet.

“Once we have all the documentation in place we will then transition to a dealer business model and transition out of farmer direct sales. Dealers across the country will be trained to deploy and service the equipment and take care of their local farmers. We are creating a great business opportunity for dealers to succeed in selling our products as well (as helping) farmers improve their profitability while reducing ground water consumption.

Questions

What will Smart Farm cost and does it have recurring annual expense?

“We are very competitively priced, and can create a big or small system to exactly fit each farmer’s needs and budget. There is no recurring fee on pump hardware, and once installed, the farmer owns it.   We’re also working with a financing company to allow guys to get in with very little money down.”

Do you have to put a weather station one each node?

“No, you don’t. You might want a station for every three or four linear miles. That’s fine -- every well within that umbrella will go by that station you want to monitor. The weather stations offer several different sources of input and we’re finding they can be used for way more than just irrigation.

“The fact that herbicide drift is a real concern for everyone makes having real-time, local wind speeds that are being recorded very useful throughout the season. Most people get their wind speeds from a weather app where the information is being gathered sometimes 30 miles from where they are. We’ve noticed significant shifts in wind speeds and directions on fields that are 10 miles from each other.”

Is this technology covered in the NRCS programs?

“I’ve spent 14 years consulting for growers on different conservation programs. We engineered this product to be compliant with their most advanced irrigation water management needs. IWM Advanced is available in CSP, EQIP, and RCPP and we’re willing to help with anything a grower needs to get that assistance.  

“Smart Farms Hardware and Software also collects all of the data a grower needs to report irrigation use in NRCS programs, which makes turning in compliance forms at the end of the year very easy.”

Who owns the data?

“The data is owned by the farmer, it’s stored on his Smart Farm base station and we also provide cloud based back up service.”

TAGS: Technology
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