Arable at Muller Ranch: working with the USDA on irrigation management

We are thrilled to have been awarded one of USDA’s NRCS Conservation Innovation Grants (CIG) in California! The program fosters innovative approaches to address the most pressing environmental issues, giving agricultural producers greater options for enhancement and compliance. Water management, and specifically, irrigation management has been a focal point of NRCS as an avenue to use and recycle water for landowners and farmers.

Photo of end of cucumber season at Muller Ranch (courtesy their Facebook page).

We are excited to partner with Muller Ranch on this project. Muller Ranch runs a sophisticated farming operation in Yolo County within the Sacramento Valley, growing a broad range of crops including: walnuts, olives, a variety of peppers, processing tomatoes, organic processing tomatoes, cucumbers, canola, sunflowers, wheat, alfalfa, corn, bud wood, organic squash, garlic. Their proximity to UC Davis makes them a convenient test bed for the latest farming technologies, and the farm is seen as thought leaders on conservation trends. We will be installing our Pulsepod devices on the farm to quantify their water budgets to optimize irrigation and processing tomato quality and yields over the next two years.

Adam Wolf, CEO of Arable Labs, will be leading the project, “Processing tomatoes are an exciting junction of food, energy, and water. Deficit irrigation is emerging as a critical tool for managing quality in many “fruits” beyond wine grapes, and it turns out that processors spend a lot on the energy it takes to evaporate the water from tomatoes with low brix. There is just one of the areas of agriculture where informed management benefits growers, processors, and consumers.”

Fine tuning irrigation techniques, especially deficit irrigation, becomes increasingly important across California, as average temperatures have increased 0.6–1.0 °C, with the warming trend contributing to a 10% decline in the Sierra snowpack. With climate models predicting an average temperature increase of 2–6 °C over the next century, there could be looming implications for the state’s $30Bn agricultural industry that is heavily dependent on irrigation withdrawals from both surface and groundwater sources. Nearly 80% of all water withdrawals across the state are used for agriculture. Over the past century, farmers alternate relying on surface and groundwater resources depending on whether it was a wet or dry year. In dry years, greater surface water restrictions cause farmers to turn to wells (groundwater) to maintain production levels. During the 1930s, groundwater extraction became so prevalent in the Central Valley that it led to declining water tables and subsidence for several decades afterwards.

Making comprehensive water and energy management easy for farmers is at the heart of Arable’s mission, Wolf explained:

“Water management is hard: it’s hard to measure what’s going on in the first place, and despite decades of research by the university, we are still learning about how plants respond to irrigation. And then even if you get that right, it’s hard to present the data easily so that decision-making is dead-simple. We developed the Pulsepod to solve the first two problems: it measures all the important components of the water cycle as well as how plants are performing. But we founded Arable to solve the last problem: making data actionable by growers. We know businesses are concerned about financial ROI, but when it comes to software we have to start by rewarding investments of time and attention. Instead of rewards at the end of one or five years, I want our returns to pay off in the five seconds it takes to check the app, or the week it takes to learn how the plants responded to their last irrigation.”
Product Team led by Marisa Rowland at Arable Labs thinking through UX.

Statewide drought has left Muller Ranch entirely dependent on wells, receiving no water allocation from surface water resources in 2014. If not managed effectively, the change in water availability and surface water allocation, combined with historically higher temperatures and lower than average rainfall, could have significant financial impacts. In a recent interview, Colin Muller, a manager at the ranch, states that, “water conservation has become the biggest priority and the greatest unknown”.

Higher temperatures and less water cause plants to reduce flowering, and transition into survival mode. In light of this, Muller Ranch has started scaling back more water dependent crops in favor of wheat and garlic, with the exception of processing tomatoes, which have greater demand and therefore garner higher prices. Still, they have actually increased acreage devoted to growing processing tomatoes from 2200 acres to 2400 acres. There has been a growing demand for processing tomatoes in US, despite price drops with greater production and higher yielding year. Additionally, with greater yields and lower prices, US processing tomatoes can be exported for European market.

Processing tomatoes play an important role in the US diet providing essential sources of Vitamin C, antioxidants (lycopene) and potassium. Each year, commercial canneries contract to buy approximately $1Bn worth of processing tomatoes from 308,000 acres across the state of California, making up 95 percent of the supply in the United States, and 35 percent, globally. Different varieties are often contracted to fulfill different end purposes. While contractors value yield size, pricing is also relative to soluble solid content of the fruit, a range of textural properties, which serve as quality and maturity indicators to both food processors and consumers, and the delivery date.

Arable’s Pulsepod device monitoring strawberry fields in Salinas, CA.

With our Pulsepod devices we will measure and monitor the critical link between Reference ET, precipitation, sub-drip irrigation and fruit stage to optimize growth while reducing water usage. The project will not only contribute to the Ranch’s financial savings, but will also work closely with Dan Johnson and the NRCS team in California to inform future CIG practices on deficit irrigation. Our ability to precisely link irrigation techniques with soluble content for quality can be applied to a wide variety of other fruits — we’ll share more soon on how it’s possible to finely tune for irrigation.