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Fostering Sustainability and Innovation in Agriculture
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California Start-Up Brings Precision Irrigation to Water-conscious Growers

March 30, 2015 |

Photo credits: Alan Wells

Photo credits: Alan Wells

If you are a farmer in California, there is one issue that should be on your mind at all times: water conservation. As California enters its fourth year of drought, recent estimates suggest that the state only has enough water in its reservoirs to last one more year.

Agriculture accounts for over 60 percent of California’s overall water usage. So as a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Viticulture & Enology at UC Davis, Tom Shapland understandably has water conservation on his mind.

Shapland and his fellow research associates worked together on a technology that would allow farmers to more precisely monitor and administer water to their crops.  Their research resulted in the creation of a sensor that measures water usage, or evapotranspiration, and the formation of Shapland’s start-up company, Tule.

“In the future, there is going to be less reliable water resources and there is going to be more people competing for those water resources, as well as more agriculture required to feed those people. We have to use water more wisely. Since agriculture is the biggest user of fresh water, we have to target how to help individual grower’s manage their water,” Shapland says.

Tule was one of fourteen start-ups launched using UC Davis technology in 2014. Shapland says the university provided crucial guidance and marketing as he started his business, which was funded through private equity from venture capitalists. Because of his background in viniculture and wine making, Shapland found his early clients in the wine industry. He emphasizes, however, that Tule’s sensor technology has a practical application in all types of agriculture.

“The technology is not just useful in premium high price-point grape production, it’s useful for all of agriculture that is irrigated. We also work in other crops— tomatoes, almonds, and strawberries. Eventually, we’d like to work in corn, soy, and others,” says Shapland.

The technology Shapland and his associates developed evolved from existing technology created by UC Davis Professor of Atmospheric Science Kyaw Tha Paw U in the 1990s. Paw U had developed a technology for calculating water usage in fields, but the technology required calibration for each location using expensive atmospheric instruments. Eventually, Shapland’s research group was able to solve the issue of calibration.

“My research community and I figured out the calibration and that enabled the technology to go from an expensive instrument in academia that always required a calibration against even more expensive technology, into something that can stand on its own and be relatively inexpensive,” says Shapland.

Shapland says this technology provides growers with three important pieces of information: data about crop water usage, plant stress levels, and the amount of water that needs to be applied to the field. It also has the ability to cover more ground than other comparable technologies, says Shapland.

“Farmers manage big areas and our technology measures an area greater than acre. Other technologies measure one point in the soil or one plant,” says Shapland.

The greatest challenge Shapland has faced in the start-up phase of Tule is meeting customer demand. Tule has 500 sensors available for sale in 2015 and 248 have already been sold. Shapland has also run across a shortage of software engineers and is always on the lookout engineers interested in contributing to a company with a meaningful cause.

As he overcomes these challenges, Shapland’s goal for the future of Tule is sustained growth so the technology can continue to contribute to water conservation in California and beyond.

“My future goals for the company are to get this technology out as broadly as possible, to help growers manage their water, to help them get the most yields from the least amount of water.”

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