New Zealand–based TechniPharm International Ltd. is a leading supplier of specialized agricultural equipment solutions and related services, primarily oriented toward dairy, beef, and sheep farming. Its overriding focus is on making farming easier, and to accomplish that, it creates products that are easy to use and install. One of them is the Ecobag, an enclosed storage system for water and effluent. In this interview, TechniPharm Group CEO Harmen Heesen tells Irrigation Leader about the company’s history and its products.
Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about your background.
Harmen Heesen: I emigrated from the Netherlands to New Zealand in 1981. I had studied dairy farm management, general agriculture, and economics, and I came to the conclusion that New Zealand might be a nice place to explore those opportunities further. When I first arrived in the country, I got involved in farming right away and was engaged in it for a number of years. During that time, I came up with several ideas for products and services I thought could be helpful in the practice of farming, and those were the origins of what is today TechniPharm. We’ve always looked for proven, new, and innovative solutions to solve problems on farms, and our main focus has always been dairy, beef, and sheep farmers in New Zealand. We do quite a lot in animal handling facilities, such as chutes and corrals.
Irrigation Leader: When was TecniPharm founded?
Harmen Heesen: We started in 1987 on a small scale while I was still farming. By 1993, we had grown to the point that the company became my family’s and my full-time focus. We have continued to grow since then. We’re still not a big company by any means, certainly not by the U.S. scale, but we have 25,000 farmers on the books in both New Zealand and Australia, and we have provided a huge number of products to those farmers over the years.
Irrigation Leader: What products and services does your company provide?
Harmen Heesen: While our main focus is animal handling and automation, we’re also active in the environmental sector. New Zealand has rigorous new environmental standards, particularly water quality regulations, that govern how farmers can dispose of dairy effluent and use chemical fertilizers. We do a lot of work in effluent storage facilities, which is where our Ecobag and Flexitank R products come into play. In general, there is a lot of open storage of effluents in New Zealand, which results in the rapid loss of quite a lot of nitrogen and the expulsion of greenhouse gases. Neither of those things are ideal from an environmental point of view. The Ecobag is a completely enclosed system that negates those problems. The Ecobag also avoids crusting and bad smells and prevents rainwater from getting into the storage system.
The Ecobag can also provide clean water storage, which can be useful for several reasons. There are farmers who depend on irrigation water but rely on a limited source, such as a well or river, that does not provide enough water for frequent irrigation. They would benefit from a storage solution. Evaporation is also a big problem in some areas, particularly in the South Island, where there are warm winds, a lot of sunshine, and little rain. Also, some irrigation systems, such as drip irrigation systems, require fairly clean water without debris, rubbish, or algae. That is another factor that makes closed storage systems like the Ecobag more attractive.
The Ecobag is available in a standard square model or in models that are rectangular, round, or other shapes and sizes. We’re working in tandem with the Europe-based manufacturer Wiefferink BV, which also supplies a lot of biogas plants throughout Europe. The Ecobag can be manufactured in a multitude of sizes up to 15,000 cubic meters (3.9 million U.S. liquid gallons). That is not enough water storage for pasture irrigation, but for specialized and small-acre irrigation applications like a winery or green house, it’s a good option to consider.
Irrigation Leader: What are the typical dimensions of an Ecobag?
Harmen Heesen: Ecobags need embankments or a support structure behind them. They can be anywhere from 2½ to 4½ meters (8.2–14.7 feet) deep. They can be below ground level, provided you don’t have a high water table, or partly under and partly above ground level. The most common method we use is cut and fill. That means we cut the dirt in half and use it to create the embankment. The embankments represent about 75 percent of the total storage capacity; with the enclosed system, we can store some of the effluent or water above the embankment.
Irrigation Leader: Is the material resistant to the sunshine?
Harmen Heesen: Yes, definitely—it has to be. The material is produced by a specialized manufacturer in Italy. It’s a so-called space-age material—a composite of nylon and polyester with webbing. It is extremely strong. We’ve done chemical residue storage facilities as well. In New Zealand, landfills have to be completely sealed, and when it rains, the water that filters through the garbage needs to be contained and treated before it can be released back into the environment. We’ve used Ecobags for this as well.
Irrigation Leader: What is the predicted life of the bag?
Harmen Heesen: It depends on what you store, how it’s being used, exposure, and other factors. If it is used to store more chemically aggressive products, it will have a shorter life. Water, on the other hand, is a neutral product. In general, most systems are expected to last 20–30 years, but some could last even longer.
Irrigation Leader: Is the Ecobag available in the United States?
Harmen Heesen: Yes. We work in partnership with our manufacturing suppliers in Europe to provide them to U.S. customers. We always try to ship directly from the manufacturer to the farm and keep costs down that way.
Irrigation Leader: How else do irrigators use the Ecobag?
Harmen Heesen: Some dairy farmers separate the liquid and solid components of effluent and then inject the liquid component into the pivot irrigator. It’s a form of fertigation with natural fertilizer, and it works really well. The Ecobag is dual use for that. There are a number of systems to store irrigation water in the horticultural sphere, and we see this market growing, as there is a big focus in New Zealand now on horticulture. Frost-protection water storage is another alternative use.
Irrigation Leader: What can you tell us about introducing new products in New Zealand? Why is the country considered to be on the cutting edge of new technology?
Harmen Heesen: I think some of that is driven by the fact that we have a culturally diverse population with a lot of people from different places around the globe. When people move somewhere new, they are more open to new ideas and ways of doing things. That’s probably largely responsible for the “Let’s give it a go” attitude that is so prevalent in New Zealand. There is always great interest in trying something different while also making sure that the boxes are checked and that things work. At the same time, in a small market like New Zealand, you can’t get away with anything. Everybody knows everybody. When you experiment, you do so with a lot of transparency until you reach the point at which you can honestly say that you have a good and effective product. Then you bring it into the marketplace.
Irrigation Leader: What should every irrigator know about TechniPharm?
Harmen Heesen: Our whole focus is on making farming easy. We try to realize that by promising to make our products easy to understand, easy to install, and easy to maintain. Distance in New Zealand is a big factor: You don’t want to be rushing all over the country to make repairs. The products you manufacture need to be robust. From the buyer’s perspective, I think those things are quite important. A farmer knows that buying a product is easy; what’s more important is to keep it running. With that in mind, we advise farmers not to overcomplicate things. Make sure that what you’re investing in is going to do the job you’re expecting it to and communicate clearly what you’re trying to achieve. Also, have a longer-term view of how things will work, and how they will add to the bottom line of your farm. In today’s world, we need to start thinking about how we can enhance the environment. How do we make sure that what we extract is not detrimental to the environment, while guaranteeing the good quality of our food, using fewer chemicals, and making better use of resources? We need to make sure that it creates value across the board, not just profits.