Since the 1980s, Yuma, Colorado–based Agri-Inject has been advancing the use of mobile irrigation systems to apply fertilizer and chemicals in liquid form. This method of application, known as chemigation or fertigation, allows for the quick, low-volume, and continuous application of fertilizers and chemicals, thus spoon-feeding crops no more than they can absorb and preventing leaching and nitrate pollution. In this interview, Agri‑Inject CEO Erik Tribelhorn tells Irrigation Leader about the company’s role in developing chemigation from its beginnings and what the company is doing today.
Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about Agri-Inject.
Erik Tribelhorn: We manufacture chemigation and fertigation equipment that is designed to inject any liquid fertilizer, chemical, or water treatment product into irrigation pipelines. Fertigation refers to the injection of fertilizers, and chemigation refers to the injection of chemicals. That makes up 90 percent or more of our business. The systems we manufacture are available in a range of sizes and configurations that is unrivaled in the industry, featuring pump sizes from less than 1 to over 300 gallons per hour; tank sizes from 10 to 600 gallons; a wide range of voltage options, material compatibility options, and plumbing configuration options; and more. We want to make sure that any fluid injection application in the world can be successfully accommodated using our equipment and engineering expertise. In many industries, including agriculture, golf, and sports parks, our customers are using their irrigation systems to deliver fertilizers, chemicals, or pest-control products through their water in a way that is palatable to plants, sustainable for the environment, safe, and usually less costly than alternatives. We’ve been involved in those markets all around the United States and in a significant part of the developed irrigated world.
Irrigation Leader: How long have U.S. users been putting fertilizer through their pivots using your pumps?
Erik Tribelhorn: Our business was founded in 1983 and predominantly focused on the center-pivot irrigation ag market. Center pivots were developed back in the 1950s, and in the late 1970s and early 1980s, our founder began using fertigation on his own farm, then did it for the neighbors, and then began developing a business model. Agri-Inject was involved in the formative years of liquid injection, when people were figuring out whether it worked, how effective it was, and what safety requirements needed to be in place on both the federal and state levels. If you look at the documentation that still exists on safety requirements in some states, you will see drawings that show our equipment, since we helped design safety protocols at that time. We certainly played a part in guiding the success of the chemigation industry in the United States.
Irrigation Leader: Why would a farmer opt to put fertilizer through their pivot?
Erik Tribelhorn: Farmers use fertigation for a variety of beneficial reasons. A primary purpose is that fertilizer that is delivered via irrigation water is delivered in a form that allows plants to readily uptake the nutrients. Plants are designed to take up liquids, not solids. Solid fertilizer needs to dissolve in water to be taken up by a plant’s roots. When you fertilize via irrigation, you are accomplishing that in one step.
Second, fertigation can be accomplished using equipment that the farmer already owns for a small capital investment. In today’s market, quarter-mile center pivots are likely in the $70,000–$80,000 range. For a small percentage of that amount, you can equip your center pivot to fertilize for you. The reliability and the features of our equipment make that process almost painless.
A third reason is that fertigation eliminates extra trips over the field. Using a sprayer or spreader, you are making trips through the field and around at the ends, compacting the soil where you’re driving, burning extra diesel, and risking drift and overlaps. Our technology runs in tracks that are already established. The fertilizer and chemicals go where the water goes.
The last point is that fertigation allows fertilizer application to be timed more closely in line with the usage of the plant. As a plant begins from a seedling and moves through its various growth stages, its usage curve of fertilizer is predictable. Since you’re watering in accordance with that growth cycle anyway, you can apply fertilizer at the appropriate times and at the rates the plant needs at that particular time. Plant-needs-based fertigation makes efficient use of nutrients and can have a similar effect on your cash flow. You can buy and use fertilizer when it’s needed. If you fertilize in two or three chunks and then get hailed out, much of the fertilizer that is stored in the ground is likely to dissipate. If you spread your fertilizer application out according to the growth cycle of the plant, it is healthier for the plant and healthier for your risk management program.
Irrigation Leader: Does it also reduce the risk of the leaching of chemicals such as nitrates into the groundwater?
Erik Tribelhorn: When the amount of fertilizer applied matches the uptake rate of the crop, little fertilizer will escape through the root zone. If you’re methodical about that, there’s little chance of any event that would cause fertilizer to escape below the root zone and leach into the groundwater. The application timing enabled by fertigation is one of the best ways to prevent the nitrate leaching problem that is prevalent worldwide.
Irrigation Leader: A visit to your factory also demonstrates that your whole business focuses on efficiency. Everything is designed to be ergonomic, to reduce steps and movements, and to make things easy for your workers. There is a culture of attention to detail and efficiency. Please tell us about your philosophy and how it came to be.
Erik Tribelhorn: What you see when you take a tour of our facility is based on a culture we take a lot of pride in. The complete factory facelift and reorganization had two rationales. First, we wanted to reduce or eliminate any limiting factors that might keep us from properly serving our customers. Second, we wanted create a factory that is unlike anything we had accomplished before, something our team could be proud of. In my first months on the job, it became obvious that the limiting factors were our ability to produce on time, our ability to manufacture our products with the required level of quality, and our ability to produce with the limited labor supply that we have in the area. Because our region is so ag oriented and because our community is small and hard working, the competition for good labor is pretty high. We needed to be efficient, to be a great place to work for existing and prospective employees, and always to be able to serve our customers. I had a vision for the plant, and the reality has far exceeded it because we never stop improving. We want to make sure that we capitalize on what I consider to be one of our competitive advantages: quick delivery to the customer with a high degree of certainty that the product is going to be configured correctly so that the customer can put it to immediate use in the field.
Chemigation and fertigation products are usually not at the top of the list when a farmer thinks about what he’s going to buy for the next year. For us to be able to serve that last-minute mentality, we need to meet an immediate demand during the season. We must manage supplier lead times that are measured in weeks or months and still be able to satisfy our customer’s needs in days or even hours. To execute at that level, we must make sure we are stocking the correct inventory at proper levels. Such inventory needs to be readily available in a usable form. To do that, work processes need to be well defined, production areas need to be well designated, and the tools for those work processes need to be immediately available and in good condition. Only the tools needed for the task are at the work area, and those tools are either captured on tool balancers or designated with labels or shadow boards, so you can’t take them to a different project. All of that is intentional; it allows us to be responsive to our customer base.
Irrigation Leader: In your factory, all the tools are on retractable, spring-loaded tethers within hand’s reach of the worker. It keeps them in the same place and prevents them from cluttering the work area. Would you attribute that design to your farmer background?
Erik Tribelhorn: A little bit. The farmer never knows what he’s up against, while we do know what we’re up against. We can make over 1,000 different product combinations from the standard products in our database, but it all boils down to five product lines. The tools are fairly consistent within that product line. That’s different from what a farmer is up against, which is what I was used to dealing with.
Several factors led to the design of our factory. We started to study the factories of the companies we dealt with. We took tours of some of our center-pivot original equipment manufacturer partners, we visited the factories of many of our suppliers, and we took our entire production staff to the Schlage factory in Colorado Springs. We began to adapt some of the things that we saw—how product moved or was stored; how information was conveyed; how people moved, worked, and communicated; the tools that were used; how fixtures and jigs were used; and more. Ultimately, we became better at solving problems efficiently through the use of fixtures, specialized tooling, and even ergonomic conditions. We trained ourselves to start to think that way. It’s a slow process, but it’s fun and rewarding. Now we know that regardless of the problem we are faced with, we can analyze it and devise a good solution. In earlier days, it was hand to mouth; now, it’s much more methodical and planned out. It’s rewarding for both me and the rest of our team to arrive at solutions that way.
Irrigation Leader: You’ve certainly adopted the universal farming mentality of always doing more with less.
Erik Tribelhorn: That’s true. We have the same problems as manufacturing companies that are 10 times our size, but instead of having 200 people to deal with them, we have just 21. Bigger manufacturers can devote teams of people to a single area within the business, while we might have one person for whom that area is only 10 percent of their job, and the rest of us have to come in to support. Knowing how to do more with less is what we’re all about, because there’s no other way. We all have regular jobs within the business, we all have different priorities, and we have to team up to solve those problems as they arrive and do so with the resources that we have. That makes it even better, honestly. It’s challenging and stressful, but when you get it all done and step back, it is very fulfilling.
Irrigation Leader: What is your message to irrigating farmers who may have never thought about putting fertilizer through their pivots?
Erik Tribelhorn: I would encourage anybody with any type of irrigation in the ag market to give fertigation and chemigation some consideration. There are many benefits. The one thing that is still true is that using our products requires some work. Despite the fact that we have technology like ReflexConnect, which allows you to remotely control and monitor your system, it’s still a little more work than getting on the phone and calling somebody to apply fertilizer on your property or to get the aerial applicator out there. However, with our products, you’re in total control over your profit and loss statements, the efficacy of the process, and the timing of the application, and you can make sure you’re applying the right chemical in the right amount and that it’s getting on your crop and not your neighbor’s.
Fluid injection into irrigation provides benefits to yourself, your farm, and the environment. It’s one of the cleanest and safest application methods in the industry. Once the injected liquid is encapsulated in that water and applied through virtually any irrigation method—center pivot, solid set, golf/turf type underground, drip—there’s little chance of drift or off-target application. I would encourage all growers to look at fertigation and chemigation as options for applying these products to your crop. It’s a process that has always been safe, reliable, and precise. Our application equipment was some of the first precision ag equipment, and it continues to be. Chemigation and fertigation reduce cost and risk; have a return on investment measured in days, not years; and when it comes to efficacy, the growth of your crop, and the environment, are the smarter choice in the long term. As the global population grows and environmental considerations grow more important, this should be the future of fertilizer and chemical application.