Rubicon Water’s technology helps manage 3.7 million acres of irrigated land. With thousands of miles of canals modernized and more than 35,000 automated control gates and meters sold, Rubicon’s innovative hardware and software is improving the efficiency and productivity of irrigated agriculture worldwide. One groundbreaking example is Rubicon’s FarmConnect solution, which leverages from technologies within Rubicon’s proven irrigation district solutions to provide individual farmers with precise, high-efficiency surface and furrow irrigation solutions. In this interview, Rubicon Business Development Manager Peter Moller tells us about the development and launch of the FarmConnect solution.
Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about your background and how you came to be in your current position.
Peter Moller: I’ve been working with Rubicon Water since 2010. Most of Rubicon’s prior business dealt directly with irrigation districts supplying canal automation, but my involvement began as I was asked by the directors to launch a new internal business unit to enter the market for on-farm automation technology for the application of water to farmer’s individual fields. Our focus is assisting farmers to transform their flood irrigation systems by providing them with technology that enables them to apply the right quantity of water to crops when and where it is needed.
The initial step was to identify a solution for transforming traditional flood irrigation, which typically had an application efficiency of 50–60 percent, into a high-performance surface irrigation system that delivers application efficiency of 85 percent or better. We saw an opportunity to adapt Rubicon’s irrigation district technology to apply the science on farm. This was the beginning of what is now FarmConnect.
In the early stages, we had to understand the limitations of these manually operated flood irrigation systems and try to envisage a solution that could enhance performance without the barriers for uptake. After 18 months of product development, I was responsible for taking the solution to the commercial market. We focused on an area within Australia’s Murray Darling basin and launched the solution to a group consisting predominantly of dairy farmers who grew pasture for dairy cows, corn for silage or grain, and alfalfa for feedstock. In 2015, we worked to automate furrow irrigation for the cotton industry, which grows crops on raised beds. For the first 7 years, our focus was on Shepparton, Victoria, where we achieved some impressive results for irrigators, including doubling their production per amount of water applied. With the production of corn for silage, we’ve been able to go from 2.6 tons per acre-foot of dry matter to 5.4 tons. Studies have revealed that irrigators are growing twice as much dry matter with the same volume of water. This is particularly relevant during the periods when we are at risk of water insecurity and are under restrictions on water use.
Following the successful outcomes for Australian irrigators, we soon implemented pilots of the on-farm automation control sensing technology in California, China, Italy, and Spain. In 2017, I was asked to take on a role within the U.S. business as national sales manager and business development manager, working with our account managers to focus on the customer relations side of Rubicon, specifically in relation to irrigation districts. Now, as we formally launch Rubicon’s FarmConnect solution in the U.S. market, our focus will be on irrigators who are currently using gravity flood irrigation systems and have a need to improve their application efficiency, reduce labor costs, and increase productivity.
Irrigation Leader: What is the FarmConnect solution, and how does it fit into the broader array of Rubicon products?
Peter Moller: Rubicon is working to increase agricultural water use efficiency from source to crop. We see a real opportunity to use hardware, software, connected devices, radio frequency (RF) systems, and data analytics to provide enormous water savings, and these opportunities have already been largely realized off farm. We work to improve the application efficiency of the surface irrigation system and to improve scheduling so that the right amount of water is delivered at the right time to the crop.
When it comes to the application of water to crops, we want to help transform flood irrigation. We know that the majority of the world’s crops are presently irrigated using flood irrigation, which consumes little energy but also has a reputation for low application efficiency. If this application efficiency can be improved, we will have a low-energy, high-efficiency solution. By using technology to improve precision, we have improved the application efficiency of surface irrigation from 50–60 percent to 85 or better, in many cases with zero input energy requirements. We’ve been able to demonstrate results like these in Australia and have had independent reviews by universities to measure and define them. In the United States, we’ve been working with the University of California, Davis (UC Davis), and its researchers and extension officers. One of the projects that we worked on at its research station in Southern California was able to demonstrate that with gravity-fed surface irrigation, we can achieve 85 percent application efficiency or better by using the measurement and autonomous control technologies that Rubicon has been developing for 25 years with irrigation districts. Modernized networks provide precise, on-demand water supplies that give irrigators the tools and flexibility to apply the right amount of water at the right times. FarmConnect empowers farmers to harness the benefits of precision surface irrigation, including savings in energy and labor costs, improved water use efficiency, and enhanced yields.
Irrigation Leader: Is FarmConnect a combination of both hardware and software?
Peter Moller: Yes. FarmConnect uses smart sensors to measure and help predict what is going on in the field and provides farmers with data at their fingertips. The hardware component involves smart valves and gates that automate the water application process. Sophisticated software assists farmers with irrigation scheduling decisions so that they can precisely manage each irrigation event. For example, soil moisture monitors track exactly how much water the crop is using and how deep the water is infiltrating in the root zone of the crop. This helps farmers ensure that there’s no unintended deep drainage. FarmConnect uses precise gate and valve devices that are actuated to open, close, and regulate at the desired times, allowing precise volumes of water to be applied at high flow rates. These devices include overshot gates in on-farm canal systems and 16‑inch valves, such as alfalfa valves, in pipe systems. Rubicon also supplies accurate flow meters and controllers that maintain constant flow rates set by the farmer. The flows are kept constant despite canal or on-farm water level fluctuations. This allows for the precise management of applied volumes on a time basis. The technology also incorporates in-field sensors that can measure the rate of advance and infiltration as water is applied to each field so that the application flow rate and duration can be optimized at various stages of crop growth. Using this technology, we have been able to make significant advances in the application efficiency of surface irrigation, making it highly competitive from an application-efficiency perspective and compelling from an energy use/operating cost perspective. The hardware, the radio networks, and the software are all provided as a cohesive, integrated solution that makes FarmConnect both easy to use and reliable. The platform provides data analytics to help predict when the next irrigation should be scheduled, to determine how much water to apply to each field, and to run the system autonomously without human intervention. Flood irrigation has historically been a highly manual activity. We are reducing its labor component at a time when labor costs are increasing, particularly in California. As irrigators are retiring, there aren’t many skilled workers coming in to replace them.
Irrigation Leader: Is each FarmConnect system customized to a farmer’s property and operations?
Peter Moller: Yes. We have standard product components: automatic gates and valves in a number of different sizes to accommodate different on-farm application systems, water level sensors, wetting advance sensors, and flow control products to provide precise volumes of water. The solution uses a lot of technology that Rubicon has developed over decades with irrigation districts: all the components that open and close gates, the actuators, the motors, the gearboxes, the cable drive systems, the RF systems, and the software for control. We’ve taken the proven methodologies we use to automate irrigation districts and fine-tuned them for on-farm irrigation systems. We made the system smaller to handle lower flows than irrigation districts do and adapted the hardware and software to be more suitable for irrigated farms. The software is customized with a detailed map of where the devices are located, what they’re connected to, what they attribute to, and whether they’re controlled or monitored.
Irrigation Leader: Do you produce your own probes?
Peter Moller: We use a select range of third-party probes that we trust from experience to provide accuracy, reliability, and value for money. We’ve focused on the integration of these market-leading probes into a system that is easy and accessible for farmers and integrates into their broader on-farm operations. We have developed radio nodes that can be connected to a whole range of environmental sensors or monitoring sensors. For example, farmers can buy our RF node and then connect other vendors’ soil probes so that they have a single platform for control, automation, and sensing. To complement soil probes, Rubicon has developed an all-in-one microclimatic weather station to provided localized weather data that determine real-time evapotranspiration and climatic conditions and provide valuable insights into irrigation scheduling and prediction.
Irrigation Leader: Would you describe your pilot program with UC Davis and the Imperial Valley sugar beet industry?
Peter Moller: The irrigation researchers at UC Davis were familiar with the results we were achieving in Australia with modernized on-farm systems, including the work we’ve done with Australian universities, and were interested in using Rubicon’s technology for local research. We installed an automatic gate at the University of California Cooperative Extension Desert Research and Extension Center in Holtville in the Imperial Valley Irrigation District, where it’s been operating for the last 10 years with different crops and different trials.
In early 2019, I was approached by UC Davis to talk to the Imperial Valley sugar beet industry’s research committee, which was deciding on its research priorities. The emerging challenge for the industry was that the cost of labor in California was significantly increasing and the value of water was also changing. Something needed to be done to provide security to the sugar beet industry. The research committee reached out to us, and we presented it a use case, facilitated by UC Davis, on what we had done with furrow irrigation in the cotton industry. Like cotton, sugar beets are grown on raised beds and are irrigated with over-the-bank manual siphons. Rubicon has proven that automating furrow irrigation is possible, and we were able to demonstrate the benefits that had been achieved in Australia. We felt that the same benefits could be provided on a broader scale.
After that meeting in February 2019, the research committee gave UC Davis the go-ahead for a trial at the research station. During 2020 and into 2021, UC Davis grew a sugar beet crop; performed frequent measurements of water volumes, the advance rate of water down a bay, and the number of irrigations; and analyzed the performance of the trial. In March 2021, I saw a paper by Dr. Khaled Bali and Dr. Stephen Kafka of UC Davis that was produced with the results of that work and showed that they had achieved an application efficiency of 85 percent.
The project for 2021–2022 is scaling up the trial in partnership with commercial sugar beet growers. I will be meeting with a farmer in the Imperial Valley to put this in a commercial context and analyze the solution in a commercial production system and to see how it’s run by an irrigator, what the user experience is, and whether it can work on a commercial level in this industry.
Irrigation Leader: Is your current launch focused on pilot projects only, or are you selling the solution to interested customers as well?
Peter Moller: In the next couple of months, we’ll be fully stocked for projects in the United States. We’re focusing on a number of projects with irrigators at a commercial level in the Central Valley of California and in Southern California. We also have opportunities in Utah: There’s a valley there where farmers are looking for automation and a water efficient surface irrigation system. We have interest, and there is a group of farms and projects that are already operational, some of which are being closely monitored by UC Davis and, in Utah, by Utah State University.
Irrigation Leader: What is the expected time required for return on investment for a standard farmer?
Peter Moller: We have proven that Rubicon’s on-farm products work commercially and operationally over the last 10 years, including in the Southern California desert, and that they deliver a return on investment within 3 years because of the water and labor savings and productivity increases they enable. That really does interest farmers and is convincing many to take the step of implementing this technology. Also, the barriers to entry are being reduced by federal and state grants for on-farm water use efficiency. There is a range of grants that can help fund these improvements and reduce farmers’ costs by up to half. We encourage any farmer planning to modernize their flood irrigation systems to explore this option to achieve a high-performance surface irrigation system with minimal energy costs.