Irrigation Leader
Featured,  Interview

Mike Mills: At Reinke Manufacturing, Sustainability Is a Global Goal

Reinke’s irrigation systems can help growers save water while increasing yield. That, says Mike Mills, Reinke’s director of sustainability solutions, is a winning formula at a time when ending global hunger as well as conserving water are top worldwide sustainability goals. In this interview, Mr. Mills speaks with Irrigation Leader about Reinke’s approach to sustainability, from manufacturing and recycling to deploying technology to help growers achieve maximum water application efficiency. 

Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about your background and how you came to be in your current position at Reinke. 

Mike Mills: I spent the first half of my career designing, selling, installing, and maintaining irrigation systems for golf courses and commercial landscape. After the housing market crash in 2009, I moved over to the agriculture sector. I came to work for Reinke and spent 13 years as the southeast territory manager. I was recently promoted to the position of director of sustainability solutions. My job in my new role is to make sure that Reinke is positioned to understand changing needs and to help growers use irrigation sustainably. My goal is to help them increase productivity while being responsible with the resources that are available to them. I also monitor our sustainability efforts as a manufacturer, and I help our growers understand that doing business with Reinke supports their sustainability efforts through the entire pipeline from manufacturing through product deployment. 

Irrigation Leader: How does Reinke manufacture sustainably? 

Mike Mills: Reinke has always had a corporate culture of reducing waste, reusing items, and being responsible for how we use resources. We employ lean and efficient manufacturing processes and make responsible investments, above and beyond the requirements. One example of that is our new laser cell, which is used for cutting various components used in the manufacturing process. It requires nitrogen to operate at peak efficiency. We made a significant investment in a nitrogen generator that captures nitrogen from the atmosphere, uses it in production, and then releases it back into the atmosphere. Another example is that when we built our galvanizing facility, we made significant investments in making it a state-of-the-art facility capable of capturing the off-gassing from the galvanizing process. We process those gases with scrubbers so that the air we release is cleaner than the air we take in. We felt a responsibility to do that for the people in the community we live in as well as for our environment. We use or recycle all the scrap left over from the production process, including the dross that we scrape from our galvanizing kettle. End-of-life electronics are separated by type and properly disposed of. In the office, we are in the process of converting all our lighting to LED lighting, which is going to reduce our energy consumption significantly. We shred and recycle 100 percent of the paper waste that comes out of our office. We also do our own onsite wastewater management. 

Irrigation Leader: In addition to being good for the environment, do your sustainability efforts benefit the company? 

Mike Mills: There are some benefits to Reinke Manufacturing—some of our recycling processes do provide a small revenue stream—but the main motivation for us in being a green manufacturer is the responsibility we feel to the environment and to the community where we live. We want to make sure that our presence doesn’t detract from but enhances the environment in which we exist. 

Irrigation Leader: In what ways does your technology allow farmers to produce more sustainably? 

Mike Mills: In the past, sustainability, as it pertains to irrigation, was viewed simply as using less water. But when we look at some of the worldwide sustainability goals that have been established by government agencies and environmental groups, we find that sustainability is now defined as more than that. We need to be able to produce food for consumption and fiber for clothing and shelter to support the world’s population today and in the future. We’ve all heard the statistic that we need to double production by the year 2050. What that means is that as an industry, agriculture needs to be responsible for how it invests resources to generate a significantly higher yield over a given land area. We have many products that can help growers achieve that goal—from something as basic as making sure that a sprinkler package is appropriate to the soil type to prevent runoff to the use of our Reincloud remote monitoring system with RC10 remote control for efficient operation or the use of our highest level of variable-rate irrigation technology. Using our products, farmers can adjust their water application based on soil types in the field so that the plants achieve their maximum yield capability based on the soil water-holding capacity. 

Irrigation Leader: Would you say that your recent advances in sustainability are driven by advances in software, advances in materials and design, or both? 

Mike Mills: Both. We’re finding that more durable product materials are available, so they’re able to withstand some of the punishment that it takes to put highly specialized technology in the field. There have also been advancements in accurate positioning technology, GPS monitoring, and pivot location monitoring. We can also deploy precise technology in protective packaging directly into the soil to monitor current moisture and other conditions, and through innovative software, we can interpolate real-time data in much better ways so that we’re applying water exactly when and where it needs to be. 

Irrigation Leader: How have these sustainability efforts opened new opportunities? 

Mike Mills: Elements of variable-rate irrigation have provided new opportunities. Historically, there were often protected wetland areas within farm fields where water could not be applied. That precluded the deployment of any mechanized irrigation, because it applied water to the entire field. Now that we have GPS position monitoring and specific sprinkler device control, we can deploy a mechanized irrigation system to a field, monitor its location, and shut off individual sprinkler devices at certain times to avoid applying water to certain areas. That has allowed growers to invest irrigation water in their fields and significantly increase yield while still respecting sensitive areas. 

Irrigation Leader: What are some of the next frontiers in conservation and sustainability technology that Reinke is working on? 

Mike Mills: We’re seeing tremendous growth in soil moisture monitoring. That technology enables growers to interpret field soil data to predict when irrigation water applications are needed. It allows them to more accurately monitor the moisture that’s available at the root zone, not just at the surface of the soil. With our increased knowledge of plant physiology, we can better predict evapotranspiration requirements. Combined with more accurate weather forecasts, that can help growers decide whether an irrigation cycle is needed. These technologies are producing significant results beyond just reducing water use: They also improve yield. They keep available water in the healthy zone of the soil rather than flooding the roots near the top, which can sometimes cause oxygen depletion. Beyond monitoring soil moisture, managing fertility and other micronutrients directly at the root zone is the frontier of sustainable technology development. 

Irrigation Leader: What is your overall attitude toward sustainability? 

Mike Mills: I think we need to look at the big picture of sustainability: ending poverty, reducing hunger, and improving responsible consumption and production, meaning that we need to look at the entire process, not just individual parts of that process. We must understand how resource investment directly affects yield productivity. We’re looking at sustainability from that macro perspective. 

Irrigation Leader: What is your vision for the future? 

Mike Mills: We see technology being invested in all aspects of agriculture, right down to the irrigation level. My vision for the future is that growers should be able to quantify the environmental investment in a crop beyond the financial input costs, including energy inputs, water investments, and soil fertility needs. That information will allow growers to produce a crop at a high volume while being able to measure environmental investment as well as financial investment. We want to use those numbers together to create a sustainable production operation. 

Mike Mills is the director of sustainability solutions at Reinke Manufacturing. He can be contacted at mikemills@reinke.com.