AgTech Provides Answers to Help Farmers Manage California Drought
Water conservation regulations for both urban and agricultural users continue to tighten as the drought in California marches on into another year.
Throughout these past years, Silicon Valley, widely considered ground zero for tech development, including agtech development, has shown little interest in backing water conservation technologies despite the drought happening in its very state. In 2014, nearly $12 billion was invested in Internet startups, but only a few hundred million was invested in water startups.
However, other tech developments still in their nascent stage coming out of Silicon Valley, including big data, biotech and genetics, nanotechnology, and the Internet of things could be the keys to helping farmers to grow more with less water.
The American Farm Bureau states that 39% of corn and wheat farmers use some form of sensor technology, and companies that produce sensors are beginning to see opportunities in agriculture. The use of soil tension sensors in conjunction with temperature, weather, and humidity data can create irrigation systems that use water at only the most efficient time of day, and in the best manner. Other sensor systems use sound waves to monitor groundwater that can be accessed when surface water supplies run low.
Other startups, such as PowWow Energy install smart meters on water pumps and networks that can detect pump leaks by monitoring when there is an abnormal spike in water use, and warn the farmer through a text to their smart phone.
Social media startups that are common in other sectors are beginning to find their applications in agriculture, as was evidenced by the recent $15 million fundraising round by The Farmer’s Business Network, which included investments from Google Ventures, Kleiner Perkins, and DBL Investors. Through this social media platform, farmers can communicate, collaborate, and compare production methods regarding issues such as water use, irrigation tools, and weather.
Genomics and plant breeding are also becoming tools to fight drought. Companies such as Chromatin, which is backed by GE Capital and BP Ventures, and Cibus are using techniques like gene stacking to create drought tolerant and water-efficient strains of sorghum and other crops, while Arcadia Biosciences, which went public in April 2014 helps seed companies bring water-efficient crops like rice to market.
Next generation water cleaning and desalination technologies are gaining ground as new startups are developing ways for the processes to be successful at a fraction of the cost. The company, NanoH20, has developed a nanotech-based water filtration system that purifies water, quicker with less energy use, resulting in it being acquired by LG last year for $200 million.
Lesser known water conservation technologies are also beginning to gain ground. California startup, mOasis produces a super-absorbent gel the size of a grain of sand, called hydrogel, that can absorb 250 times its weight in water to be slowly released as soil dries out. The gel is added to the soil before planting, and according to the company, it will last for about a year, cutting water use by 20% and water bills by 15%, and will not leave any environmentally damaging by-products behind when it breaks down.