Nicholasville-based Smart Farm is part of the wave of companies rapidly changing farming through technology. Tom Martin talked with Smart Farm president and chief technology officer Bob Farinelli.
Q: Smart Farm isn’t your first stop in the technology business. Could you tell us about that?
A: We, the team and I, worked at a company called Elan Home Systems in Lexington. Elan Home Systems is a home and light commercial automation, AV control keypads, touch screens, controllers, such things like that. It’s very similar technology that can be applied from that market segment into the farming market segment. Monitoring and control are what we’re good at. So it’s a pivot move from one market segment into another.
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Q: How did you go from the home automation market to agriculture?
A: I had retired, and I was looking for something to do. And one of the co-founders brought me this idea. He is still a customer at Elan. He installed a system at a farmer’s house. He was outside on the pool deck showing him how to turn his pool pump on and off, when the farmer brought him to the side of the fence and said, “Son, you see all those well pumps out there? I want to turn those on and off without having to leave my pool deck.” So I started working on some Small Business Innovation Research grants and did some research, and found out this is a big problem. And there really weren’t any slam-dunk solutions out there. There were lots of piecemeal parts and pieces of solutions, but nothing was integrated as a full system.
Q: And what specifically was the problem that you set out to solve?
A: Because these irrigation well pumps are spread over large areas, attending to them requires someone driving a truck. And you end up with waste. You over-irrigate. The bigger problem is that aquifers are rapidly being depleted. Agriculture consumes about 70 percent of the water that’s being extracted from these aquifers, but only about half of that water is used by the plants, and a good portion of it just runs off. So, you end up with erosion and off-field migration of chemicals. And it’s because you can’t have hands-on immediate control when you want to because they’re spread all over the place. So the opportunity is if you can have monitoring control of these things, then you have better information to make better decisions. We help farmers apply just the right amount of water at just the right time on a field-by-field basis. And when you do that, you can reduce groundwater consumption, reduce fuel, reduce labor expenses, reduce chemical expenses, and you can increase crop yields as well.
Q: Digital technology innovations have been bringing access to all kinds of data to the farmer, which is making a big difference in decision-making and in the economics of farming. What sort of data does Smart Farm yield to the farmer?
A: We speak specifically about the real-time conditions of the fields: the moisture level, wind speed, direction, humidity, temperature, rain accumulation. That’s a very important one. If you see that you’re getting rain in fields, you can just press a button and turn off those pumps and benefit from that rain. So there are a lot of environmental factors that we provide real-time information about as well as conditions at the pumps: Are they running? Is there a defect or a fault? It’s information that allows you to make decisions about what to do regarding your irrigation schedules on a real-time basis. Instead of saying, “Well, I’ll just let them run for two days. That’s what I’ve always done,” now you can you can look at moisture levels and decide, “This one’s good; this one’s done.”
Q: Can you run it from your cellphone? Is there an app for that?
A: Yes. We have a mobile app. Most farmers are on the move. That’s a big part of the offering: to be able to develop a mobile app that can give them a view of what’s going on as well as control from their smartphone.
Q: How does the use of your technology make a difference in outcomes for your clients?
A: The easiest thing to understand is that during a growing season, there might be seven or eight irrigation events. And if we can show farmers that they can hold off a little bit because the soil is saturated or has moisture in it even though it’s hotter than blazes out there, then they end up watering one or two fewer times during that season, a huge percentage of reduction in groundwater extraction. So, by reducing the amount of watering sets, you don’t overwater, which sometimes is a bigger problem than crop stress from underwatering. So, you end up with increased yields as well as reduction in the time that you spend driving to and tending to these devices.
Tom Martin’s Q&A appears every two weeks in the Herald-Leader’s Business Monday section. This is an edited version of the interview. To listen to the interview, find the podcast on Kentucky.com. The interview also will air on WEKU-88.9 FM on Mondays at 7:35 a.m. during Morning Edition and at 5:45 p.m. during “All Things Considered.”