LIVINGSTON, Mont. — Paradise Valley, meet Silicon Valley.
Jeff Reed has made his living in technology including serving as chief technology officer of Arrow Electronics, a company that makes many of the electronics that run our various gadgets and devices. Recently, he has turned his tech skills to what was once a relatively simple farmer’s life — growing organic alfalfa on his property along the Yellowstone River.
After the unprecedented closure of the Yellowstone River last year due to a parasite that killed thousands of fish, Reed turned his tech mind to irrigating his fields — from water rights he holds on the Yellowstone River — more efficiently, with the goal of leaving more water in the river.
“I’m working on the water primarily in response to what’s happening with our fish species,” Reed said.
He installed high-tech sensors to monitor a variety of data, including — but not limited to — rainfall and the moisture content of the soil, which, when tied in with his pump and irrigation system, allowed him to water only as needed, rather than turning his pivots on and allowing the water to flow all season.
“We can predict how much water is being lost from the plant and soil, and how much is coming in,” Reed said, “so we can shut that pivot on and off.”
With this year’s relatively wet spring and early summer, Reed used 30 percent less water than last year and consequently less energy, since his water has to be pumped uphill from the Yellowstone.
He predicts technology may eventually allow up to a 50 percent greater efficiency in water usage.
Working with Ford Smith, who operates an organic lawn care company out of Bozeman, Reed is also studying his soil. He hopes to be able to increase the nutrients in the soil and thus increase the nutrients in his alfalfa.
“If I can double the nutritional value, it’s like doubling the amount of my land” Reed said. “And land’s expensive.”
He produces his alfalfa through organic farming methods.
“It’s not just organic,” Reed said. “It’s really about soil research. If you take care of the soil, it will take care of the plants, and your plants will take care of your animals.”
Reed was inspired to work on more efficient irrigation after last year’s fish kill and subsequent closure of the Yellowstone River.
A parasite was found to be responsible for the fish kill. Researchers suggested that low water flows on the river along with the accompanying higher water temperatures may have weakened fish, making them more susceptible to the parasite.
“I wanted to try to be the good citizen and did the math on how much water I’m consuming out of the Yellowstone River if I’m running at full draw,” Reed said. “. It’s not just about getting efficient with water, but helping our tourism-based economy so we don’t have (more) fish kills.”
Reed is also in the tourism business, operating his Reedfly Farm luxury guest lodge as, until recently known as Riversbend Lodge.
Reed works with Bozeman-based Bill Maxwell, of Diamond M Drilling, who works with pumping and drilling water and running irrigation pivots. Reed said he needs Maxwell’s expertise with irrigation to tie in with Reed’s computer code that runs the pivots.
Reed uses a sensor produced by a tech company called Arable. Arable makes a sensor that measures rainfall by sound. The sensor can compute rainfall based on the sound of the raindrops hitting the sensor and the size of the drops. Reed has written code for the irrigation system’s control box that will turn on the pump and pivot when needed.
Computers — through a new technology called “machine learning” are more accurate than humans, Reed said. Machine learning can aggregate data better than people can, and with enough data, can predict future outcomes.
Machine learning is the basis of self-driving cars and other tasks that can become more and more automated in the future.
Reed envisions that as sensors become more available and less expensive, more ranchers will be interested in the technology. With his tech background and forward thinking, Reed foresees that “Big Data,” which has led the revolution for companies like Amazon.com and Google, will allow more and more jobs in both agriculture and other fields to become more data-driven and automated. “Big Ag” is already highly automated, Reed pointed out.
Reed predicts that with more data accumulated, it will be possible to more accurately manage farming and make more precise predictions about, for example, how much water is optimal and the best time to cut alfalfa. He also predicts that any naysayers could find themselves out of business.
“Look at the people who said Amazon would never amount to anything,” Reed noted wryly.
Information from: Livingston Enterprise, http://www.livingstonenterprise.com