Getting Water from a Turnip

By Bill Stadick

How did an Iranian river that ran dry decades ago lead to breakthrough moisture sensor research? What’s the connection between innovative use of lasers in the 1970s and a unique drainage management approach? Where does an entrepreneur in Colorado find motivation to develop new ag water management technology? For three innovators, the drive to find effective water management and conservation resources has always been very personal. 

When “Life-Giving” River Runs DryAmin Afzal

Iran’s Zayandeh-Rood river literally means ‘life-giving,’ but its lower reaches began drying up decades ago due to years of mismanagement and overuse. One section flowed through Esfahani, hometown of Amin Afzal. Motivated by that experience, Afzal now leads a group of researchers at Pennsylvania State University who are working on a breakthrough moisture sensor.

“The river had a large impact on our society and the region’s economy. The struggles farmers faced after it started drying up definitely motivated my research in significant ways,” he says.

After initially trying to perfect a soil moisture measurement tool, he turned his focus to the plant itself. The clip-on leaf sensor being developed by the team at Penn State provides considerably more accurate measurements than traditional methods.

“Most irrigation today is based on calendar schedules, transpiration calculations or soil moisture measurements,” says Afzal. “The sensor provides a more accurate understanding of what’s going on within the plant itself because it measures both the thickness and electrical capacitance of a leaf, the most responsive part of the plant for measuring water content variations.” 

By attaching the sensor directly to the leaf, the team also avoids the common challenges associated with removing leaves from their environment for
lab analysis. 

A study of the team’s findings was recently published in Transactions of the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers. While the team’s research currently focuses on tomato plants, Afzal anticipates the sensor will ultimately benefit all sorts of farmers by helping them pinpoint with much greater accuracy the irrigation needs of a wide variety of crops. 

Could better detection of when plants need to be watered have prevented overuse of resources in the lower reaches of the Zayandeh-Rood river that flowed past his hometown in Iran? It’s impossible to say for certain, but his childhood experiences have clearly influenced Afzal’s efforts to find more sustainable solutions related to water use.


Great-Grandfather Knows BestCorey Getz

Corey Getz, CEO of DIGS Associates in Moweaqua, Illinois, also draws inspiration from past experiences. In his case, however, he points to the forward-thinking mindset of an ancestor.

“My great-grandfather started a tiling business in the 1970s that used lasers to do most of their measurements,” says Getz. “At the time, many found it silly, saying it would never work. But all laser use has done since then is make everyone’s life easier.” 

The introduction of GPS as a measurement tool in the 2000s met similar resistance. An unwillingness to settle for status quo solutions to drainage water management (DWM) motivated Getz and his partner, Quint Shambaugh, to start their own DWM consulting business in 2016. 

“The drainage tile business never really had any checks and balances. It was essentially a handshake agreement business,” he says. “There was no set way to develop plans for engineering, so essentially what DIGS does is bring large watersheds together, representing every landowner within that watershed.” 

To move from handshakes to high-tech, they developed and now implement an innovative watershed mapping tool. Within a matter of minutes, their patent-pending software can pull topographic data to identify outlet locations, land ownership and the exact watershed to the acre. 

“The technology has really allowed us to focus at the watershed level rather than the independent farmer level,” says Getz. “It’s no longer a farmer calling to say, ‘I have a certain number of acres I need to drain.’ It is us saying those acres fall within a larger watershed and then working with neighbors to find the most equitable, efficient way to drain it.” 

After analysis, the company engineers the entire project, working directly with contractors and tile manufacturers, and facilitating every other aspect, be it surface or subsurface, short of manufacturing and installing the pipe. For Corey Getz, this commitment to water technology reflects a legacy of innovation that goes back at least three generations.


Bringing ERP to H2OKevin France

Kevin France, CEO of SWIIM System, hopes his company will become “the CPA for agricultural water rights” by adopting Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) practices. ERP allows diverse business data to be collected, interpreted and managed together, and France is using it to focus particularly on areas where renewable water faces increased scrutiny and pressure. 

Prior to his current focus on water rights and land resources, France worked with companies at a senior level in a variety of industries, including food service, broadcast and technology. Such experience helped shape his vision for what can be accomplished in the ag water rights space.

“Especially in the irrigated West, growers and their respective water districts are being forced to justify water use to a granular degree,” he says. “You continue to see these triage situations where the truth is coming to light; water resources we thought we had may not be there anymore. Many are performing water management in an archaic form, such as using a water meter that may or may not be calibrated. No one has brought in a full-service ERP platform.”

Providing that platform has led Forbes to twice identify SWIIM as one of the top 25 ag tech companies globally.

“The ERP platform allows growers to make intelligent water decisions. Water districts can allocate based on delivery and consumption,” adds France. “You need to consider both because it’s like balancing a checkbook. One of the ultimate deliverables we provide is an audited report—the same way you would get a statement of financial accounts from your CPA.”