For most people, citywide weather forecasts are precise enough for knowing whether to grab a raincoat or shed some extra layers of clothes.
But for farmers, climate conditions that shape decisions about irrigation, fertilizing and harvest can vary from spot to spot across an acre. Yet the products available to take such site-specific measurements are often too expensive, complicated to use or both, putting the resources out of reach for many growers.
When it comes to useful tech tools for growing crops, “the agriculture industry is about 10 to 15 years behind,” said Dan Maycock, chief information officer for Allan Bros., a more than a century old fruit grower and shipper in the Eastern Washington town of Naches.
Particularly with added pressures from climate change and droughts as well as less migrant labor available, “now is the time to bring technology aggressively into agriculture,” he said.
Maycock recently had the chance to spur some of that innovation through an Internet of Things (IoT) hackathon organized by Slalom, a Seattle-based consulting firm.
Over three months, a 15-member crew from Slalom and Allan Bros. collaborated to create a system for “microclimate” monitoring and forecasting that could be deployed across farms.
“It was an opportunity for the city mouse and country mouse to work together to bring innovative ideas to the table,” Maycock said.
Maycock grew up among the grape, hops and cherry orchards of Prosser, Wash., population 8,000. He left home to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees in technology and then worked in the Puget Sound area’s tech sector for 15 years. His resume includes nearly four years as a business intelligence consultant at Slalom. Two years ago, he returned to the Yakima Valley area.
Maycock’s former boss, Slalom practice director Erik Johnson, contacted him about participating in the hackathon. “I jumped at the opportunity,” he said.
The team’s goal was to spend less than $1,000 on hardware and software, deploying a test system for measuring weather and soil conditions. (Off-the-shelf microclimate weather systems can cost $30,000-to-$100,000.) Maycock wanted to avoid proprietary, specialized products and make sure that farmers could easily integrate the system into technology they were already using and to make sure they would be in control of their own data.
Their solution included:
- Weather monitoring devices from a vendor called Ecowitt that measure soil moisture and temperature, humidity, solar radiation and windspeed and shares the information through Wi-Fi.
- AgWeatherNet, a Washington State University system of weather stations scattered across 187 sites in Eastern Washington. The WSU data was used to confirm the existence of microclimates and to provide additional measurements not captured by the local sensors. Combining the WSU and microclimate data was helpful for weather forecasting.
- Microsoft Azure to store the collected data and Dell Boomi to integrate data used from the WSU weather stations.
- Microsoft’s Power BI to visualize and interact with the results.
Volunteering nights and weekends on the project, the hackathon team in the fall deployed three monitoring devices that fed into their analytical system. They placed them among apple trees in one of the Allan Bros.’s orchards.
“We demonstrated to Allan Bros. that this is something that they can own and they can use, and they can take to other growers,” Johnson said. “We’ve proven that IoT is usable and the grower can maintain it.”
The project won Slalom’s hackathon and highlighted the benefits of teaming up with outside organizations for building a hackathon project that can make a genuine difference, he said.
“It was sort of stepping into a different world from what folks usually do,” Johnson said. “It’s an opportunity to apply our skills in a different area.”
Maycock has now turned his attention to building a 2.0 version of the system. The original setup’s battery life wasn’t sufficient for long-term use, so he’s exploring more powerful solar options. He’s also interested in applying IoT to the bins used for collecting cherries, apples and other fruit to monitor their temperature and even the respiration of the fruit in order to keep the produce in ideal shape.
Maycock acts as a bridge between tech and ag, and he organizes monthly, tech-focused meetups among his farming peers. Through those get-togethers, he’s educating others about agricultural applications of IoT technology.
“Our goal is to share as much as we can with as many people as we can — it’s not to build a high-cost solution,” he said.
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