Sensor Network Has Avocado Farmer Seeing Green

High water costs made Kurt Bantle's avocado farm financially untenable, but after optimizing his irrigation system by using a network of sensors linked to an IoT network, he was able to slash his water costs and recoup his investment in just six months.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor
Aug 02, 2016

If you are a fan of the avocado, you know that your desire for the fruit often comes at a steep price. That's partly because it is a very thirsty crop. In California, farmers typically expend 74.1 gallons of irrigated water to grow a pound of avocados, according to Mesfin Mekonnen and Arjen Hoekstra, researchers at the University of Twente, in the Netherlands. That amount of water is far greater than what is needed to grow the same amount of tomatoes, strawberries or lettuce.

Five years ago, Kurt Bantle, a senior solution manager at Spirent, a company that provides evaluation and development services for telecommunications networks, devices and applications, decided to try his hand at avocado farming. He quickly learned about the burden that water footprint takes on growers.

Water consumption can make avocado farming a losing proposition for small growers. The Internet of Things may be able to help.
"I farm 12 acres, which is a small size for an avocado farm," Bantle says. When he purchased the farm, Bantle considered cutting the cord completely from his tech job. But then the financial reality of managing a 900-tree avocado orchard, during what has become a historic drought in California, set in.

Most avocado growers, Bantle says, use 4 acre-feet of water to irrigate each acre of trees per year. But at $1,200 an acre-foot (1 acre-foot equals 326,000 gallons), water consumption can make avocado farming a losing proposition for small growers. "We could never afford to operate the irrigation system for 12 hours every four days," he says, referring to a baseline consumption of 4 acre-feet of water per acre (a total of 48 acre-feet) per year.

As luck would have it, Bantle was also tasked with helping to develop an IoT network offering at his day job. So he decided to turn his avocado-growing hobby into a work project.

Bantle started by surveying the marketplace for IoT systems designed for agriculture. "There are IoT solutions for large-scale operations," he explains, "such as big soybean farmers growing thousands of acres, but there was nothing for small scale." He began by testing the use of soil-moisture sensors that communicate via a ZigBee mesh network, but found that managing the network quickly became difficult. Due to the nature of the mesh network, every data packet was transmitted over every node, which meant he was "sending a lot of data over a small pipe," and consuming a great deal of battery power. "I probably didn't have the most efficient topology set up," he admits. "I had every [sensor] acting as a router. Nothing ever slept."

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