By Ann Donahue
Numbers on a spreadsheet are just that—numbers. Devoid of its bigger context, collecting data can seem like a mind-numbing process without end, aggregating points of information that never develop into a plan of action. This is where artificial intelligence can help integrate domain expertise to mine the data for you—and get you the answer that you are looking for or at least a simple report to make a decision.
San Mateo, Calif. and Fresno-based AgMonitor exists to aid farmers in seeing that big picture to help manage their farms, and to help provide the answer as to what data truly matters to their operations. This, in turn, can have real-world results in crop efficiency improvement and the bottom line.
AgMonitor—formerly known as PowWow Energy—offers three different products to farmers. PumpMonitor allows farmers to manage water usage across pumps and field; RanchMonitor tracks energy costs across solar generators, buildings and pumps; and CropMonitor targets crop revenue, by tracking both yield increase and quality.
Since its founding in 2013, AgMonitor’s results have been impressive, according to Founder and CEO Olivier Jerphagnon. Users of PumpMonitor reduce the implementation cost of water monitoring by 50-80 percent. One example is Terranova Ranch led by Don Cameron. He was able to leverage SmartMeter and the existing pump test program run by Fresno State to get water records for SGMA. Terranova only had to put new telemetry systems where needed, such as the lift pumps used for the groundwater recharge program. He can also track the groundwater table depth on the same platform.
Cameron also tried RanchMonitor to optimize his two 1-megawatt solar projects. Over the last 5 years, it helped increase the ROI on his solar investments by 42 percent. The result was part of a recent study on 10 farms that used AgMonitor. It was shared during a recent workshop with PG&E, which promotes the platform for its food processing and agriculture segment.
Terranova Ranch connected with other farms via AgMonitor. After talking to Bowles Farming, who also use the AgMonitor platform, they decided to do the cleaning of the solar panels themselves. Cameron’s staff receives a text alert from AgMonitor when the dust on the panels causes a loss in energy generation that is higher than the cost of cleaning.
Cameron and his controller also sat down with AgMonitor and his PG&E representative to optimize the change from legacy rates to new utility rates. Peak hours have recently switched from 12 p.m. – 6 p.m. to 5 p.m. – 8 p.m. All the changes added up to large savings that improve the cash flow of the farming operation. On average RanchMonitor enables farms to save $3 for every $1 spent.
AgMonitor is a member of the Western Growers Center for Innovation & Technology in Salinas, Calif., and has several in-the-field connections with the Western Growers community: American Farms, P-R Farms, and Woolf Farming, among others, used the company’s technology. The platform currently operates on more than 150,000 acres and on many different crops studied in collaboration with UC Davis and UC Santa Barbara.
CropMonitor is a more recent product deployed over 25,000 acres. It was developed with 12 farms under a 5-year project funded by the California Energy Commission to provide a scalable irrigation scheduling and reporting platform that works as well for an agronomist in front of a tablet or a ranch manager in the field. The director of farming can track how accurately the water is applied by management areas against a water budget and can also track how precisely the team implemented the plan. On average, the 12 farms have increased their profits by $200 to $400 per acre.
One example is a ranch managed by Teixeira & Sons for RPAC, a well-known almond processor on the west side of the valley. They were able to reduce the variety in plant vigor and crop yield from 25 percent down to 10 percent from 2018 to 2020. This year, they were able to cut back on water during the drought while maintaining a good yield. Actually, they realized that they did not apply all the water that they had planned thanks to CropMonitor. They used the water available after harvest to prepare the next crop.
“On average we found that farms execute 70 percent of their irrigation plan. We have seen numbers as high as 90 percent and numbers as low as 50 percent. Sometimes they irrigate less and sometimes they irrigate more depending on field activities,” explained Jerphagnon in a follow-up email. Teixeira & Sons is on the higher end of the spectrum with 90 percent. Even they found a use for AgMonitor. Working with their automated irrigation systems, they were able to bring precision agriculture beyond 90 percent to optimize every drop of water.
Mike Chrisman, a fourth-generation farmer and the former California Natural Resources Secretary, advised AgMonitor to be patient. They had a good vision, he said, but it was going to take time for the farming community to integrate data and new technologies such as Artificial Intelligence to adapt to the new regulations. AgMonitor listened and he joined the Board of Directors in 2016.
AgMonitor has raised $9 million in funding, Jerphagnon said; of that, $6 million has come from grants and $3 million from farming partners and family who care about water. To date, the company has taken no venture capital money. That fact speaks to the broader mission of the organization; they understand that bestowing technical knowledge without tried-and-true agricultural connections is pointless. “We have a dual culture—we’re as much from Central Valley as from Silicon Valley,” Jerphagnon said.
Being embedded with the agriculture community allows AgMonitor’s technology to be ground in real-world, on-the-farm applications. “Today, [technology] puts the burden on farmers to stop farming, go on a computer, and look at data. That’s not what they want,” Jerphagnon said, noting that the company tracks inputs via machine learning and publicly-available, large-scale data to set a baseline. They are currently working with the OpenET consortium led by scientists at CSU Monterey near Salinas, Calif.
Once an opportunity to increase profits has been identified, AgMonitor can integrate other private sensors that farms purchase but this time with a clear return on investment in mind. It is about the answer to the grower, not just the data. “So we do all the data messaging. We try to automate some of their insights and rules by looking at data on a much higher frequency, like every day or every hour. You can start to send alerts and notifications so it’s easy for them to consume all the data,” he said.
Jerphagnon added that making the technology dashboard intuitive to use became even more important during COVID. “Everyone needs to work on the same digital copy of the farm to make decisions and collaborate, as opposed to having things in a binder, looking at a map, and then looking at imagery with an iPad somewhere else,” he said. “If that happens, ownership doesn’t see it, or the accounting person is only looking at the data. You have to bring those people together.”
AgMonitor will be part of a panel on the “digital transformation of agriculture” with Terranova Ranch and Vann Brothers on November 18. It will be moderated by Western Growers.