CropX is an Israeli ag tech firm that aims to provide farmers with reliable data from below the ground in addition to other data layers. Its do-it-yourself soil sensors can be installed by a farmer in about 5 minutes, and it uses cloud-based software to create a comprehensive picture of the condition of a field—even the sections that are between the sensors. The simplicity of the CropX solution means that it has quickly expanded around the globe and is serving customers even amid the disruptions and travel restrictions caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
In this interview, CropX CEO Tomer Tzach tells Irrigation Leader about how the company’s innovative solution is helping farmers around the world.
Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about your background and how you came to be in your current position.
Tomer Tzach: I joined CropX a little more than 3 years ago. I’m not the founder of the company, and I didn’t come from the industry. My background is kind of diverse. I grew up between Israel and the United States and then did my mandatory military service in Israel, joining the flight academy and graduating as a transport pilot. I flew transports until the age of 25. Then I left the air force and studied computer science at the Technion, the Israel Institute of Technology. After graduating, I started working as a software developer for Intel, developing code for the communications group, earning my master of business administration at the same time. After that, I was fortunate enough to be hired at a local venture capital firm, where I did some investing for about 4 years. After I left the firm, I joined a small internet startup that was in distress and was looking to raise money; I managed to sell the company after about a year. Then I ended up founding my own e-commerce company in the domain of selling diamond jewelry online. It grew nicely for about 5 years and reached 70 employees at its largest. Then we had 2 challenging years, and I ended up selling the name brand to one of the largest diamond manufacturers in Israel. At that time, I was approached by a headhunter who told me that an ag tech company named CropX was looking for a new CEO. I fell in love with the company and joined. That was 3 years ago, and I’m happy with the transition and with the way things are going.
Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about CropX and its history.
Tomer Tzach: The company was founded about 6 years ago. The original idea, as with any ag tech company, was to help farmers do a better job by utilizing and applying data in order to irrigate better, apply fertilizer better, and so forth. The gap that the company found in the market was that more than 90 percent of the companies active in the market were basing their solutions on data coming solely from above the ground. Whether they come from satellites, drones, or cameras, the main issue with above-the-ground measurements is that they come in too late. By the time you can see a problem from above the ground, it has often been going on for 2 weeks or more, and there’s nothing you can do about it. With this in mind, the company tried to focus on collecting data underground. It was clear that real-time, in-ground information was the most valuable and accurate, but the real challenge was to collect it in a scalable manner.
The first thing the company did was to try to utilize third-party sensors as part of a solution, but nothing fit the bill. Most existing sensors required an installation by a technician. You’d need to book an appointment in advance, and installation would take about half a day. Taking them out of the ground, repositioning them, and connecting them to solar panels and gateways was all too difficult. They were expensive, especially when considering installation cost. In terms of connectivity, there were a lot of issues with transmitting data out of rural areas.
To solve all that, the company eventually decided to develop its own sensor. CropX developed the first, and still the only, do-it-yourself soil sensor. It can be installed by a farmer in about 5 minutes. It’s inexpensive and effective in transmitting data out of the field into the cloud. There are different antennas for several different crop types and various different transmission protocols, including Bluetooth, LoraWAN, 3G, 4G, and even satellite transmission. The most important thing that the company managed to solve was the issue of data accuracy. The vast majority of soil sensors out there are inaccurate because they disturb the soil: When you put something in the ground, there’s always a gap between the soil and the sensor, and after an irrigation event or a rain event, the water flows straight down the sensor to the bottom. That means that it tells the farmer that they have a lot of water in the bottom, when that in fact is not true, because water really percolates through the soil at a rate of about an inch per hour. CropX was able to solve that with its patented spiral sensing solution. The design of the sensor means that it is much more accurate.
On the software side, CropX takes real-time data from the soil on water, electric conductivity, temperature, and so forth, and combines that information in the cloud with all the various data layers we have as inputs to our system—satellite, topography, weather data, 100 different crop models, and so forth. We are then able to connect the dots between these various data layers and the data coming from the soil and provide much better guidance on irrigation. Recently, we started to do the same for fertilizer application. We don’t stop with prescriptions—we can also connect to various irrigation systems and actually control them. This enables automation as well.
Irrigation Leader: How many employees do you have today?
Tomer Tzach: 40.
Irrigation Leader: How many sensors would a farmer using CropX need?
Tomer Tzach: Because we have hardware and software development and agronomy all under the same roof, we were able to come up with a multidisciplinary product. Thanks to that, we’re able to spread out the sensors widely in the field, significantly reducing the cost per acre. We’re talking, on average, one sensor for every 25–30 acres. We are able to use so few sensors by positioning them in the right place in the field. When a farmer downloads the app for installation, we automatically perform soil analysis and are able to tell them where to put the sensors in real time. We are able to extrapolate data from in between the sensors. It’s not averaging or interpolation, it’s extrapolation—in other words, machine learning among the various sensors. No matter where the farmer puts his finger on the field, we’re able to tell how much water is at that point at an accuracy of 95 percent, even in between sensors.
Irrigation Leader: How would a farmer install the software?
Tomer Tzach: The software is also easy to install. The customer downloads an app to their phone, and it walks them through the installation process in a 3-minute video. It’s simple. We do have customer support as well, which can be contacted by phone, email, or text.
Irrigation Leader: Is your product best suited for farmers who are using center-pivot irrigation, or is it appropriate for any sort of irrigation?
Tomer Tzach: We’re crop agnostic and irrigation agnostic—meaning that our solution can be used with any crop and any kind of irrigation. We do have a lot of pivot growers; pivot irrigation and broadacre crops are a natural fit for CropX. If you’re an average corn grower in the United States, you make a net profit of $100 per acre per year, and with today’s commodity prices, CropX is the only solution that makes sense at those price levels. We also have installations in drip, subsurface drip, flood, and sprinkler irrigation, and even in places where there’s no irrigation at all, because CropX’s solution can help with fertilizer applications as well.
Irrigation Leader: Where around the world is your company active?
Tomer Tzach: CropX’s ability to scale and the fact that both the hardware and the software can be installed by farmers themselves means that the company is active literally all over the world. Just in the past few months, we have had new installations in Belize, Colombia, Senegal, and Thailand. Today, CropX has installations on almost every continent. Australia, Colombia, Costa Rica, Israel, Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa, the United States, and several countries in Europe and East Asia are all strong markets.
Especially with the coronavirus outbreak, the fact that our systems can be installed by the customers themselves is a big advantage. The inability to travel caused by the pandemic is actually not hurting us as a company. We’re seeing a strong continuation of our business because we just ship the product and our customers install everything by themselves.
Irrigation Leader: Was your product developed with the issues of the Israeli market in mind, or was it developed with the world market in mind?
Tomer Tzach: The latter is the more accurate response. CropX was founded with an international mindset. We were fortunate to have strong international investors who helped us expand internationally almost from day 1.
Irrigation Leader: What results have your clients and customers seen from your product?
Tomer Tzach: Saving water is an immediate result. We’ve had customers who have reduced their water consumption by 50 percent. We also do many commercial experiments backed by third parties, so we’re able to prove our key performance indicators. CropX can also help farmers save energy. Turning a pivot around a circle once takes a day and can cost $500 in energy costs alone. Every time CropX allows a farmer to realize that their crop has enough water and that they don’t need to turn the pivot, they save money.
Compliance and regulation are also significant. In many cases, the U.S. Department of Agriculture provides additional water quotas for farmers who are using sensing technology.
There are also crop-specific use cases and benefits. For example, potatoes are sensitive to overirrigation—if you overirrigate them, they rot. Potato growers can use CropX to avoid reaching that point. Cotton is another example: For cotton, if you pull back on irrigation to the point at which you start stressing the crop, that’s actually when it blossoms the most and yields most.
In general, avoiding overirrigation can result in a stronger crop, because overirrigation gives you a crop with a weaker root zone. If we can help farmers irrigate properly, their crops develop a stronger root system and become more resilient.
Irrigation Leader: Where do you manufacture your sensors?
Tomer Tzach: Components are acquired from many places, but the sensors are assembled in Israel.
Irrigation Leader: What is your vision for the future?
Tomer Tzach: CropX’s aim is to be the global leader extracting insights from within the ground.