Like Water for Money

Increased pressure on water is forcing some farmers to make hard choices between farming or selling their water. 

Since farmers can use up to 80% of water supplies, towns and water intensive industries are searching for a way to buy some of that water. One practice, called ‘Buy and Dry’ is used by some municipalities. The town buys all the water rights from a farmer, who receives money as long as the land stays fallow. For farmers, finding an alternative is a very complicated process, with lots of moving parts. That is where SWIIM, from SWIIM Systems comes in.

SWIIM has two parts: one to use data so that a farmer can plan for their future, and the other to manage the process once the plan is in place.

Planning Package

Water use occurs from plant consumption, evaporation, and water flowing back into rivers and streams. For the farmer, the amount and timing of water for optimal growth is a combination of instinct, experience and tradition. SWIIM’s planning package lets farmers make more informed decisions by viewing a satellite image of their farm and fields, which includes information on soils, water availability and more. In a series of overlays, they can enter historical data such as crops, costs from energy, water, fertilizer and any changes in soil from system data. This includes information about what the farmer is growing, on what fields and at what cost. Once entered, the farmer can see a kind of profit and loss statement of their current practices. They can then experiment with options.

  • Crops: The farmer can select crops from a drop down, to see how that crop’s features might enhance their current mix. That information includes USDA information on growing season, water needs, and so forth, combined with GIS data on water availability in the area and even soil health. In the latter case, a farmer who has enhanced soil health can over ride the GIS data.
  • Irrigation Quantity—Deficit Irrigation: University research has studied the balance between crop yield and various amounts of irrigation, partially supported by funding from Regeneris Management Group, the incubator for SWIIM Systems. Corn, for example, when irrigated with less water, produces a plant that doesn’t look as lush, but yields corn that is only slightly smaller. Multiyear studies have calculated the amount of yield and water savings, finding balancing points between saving water and lowering yield. This kind of information is very useful in helping a farmer plan crops for the coming year.
  • Irrigation Type: There are various types of irrigation, some more efficient than others. ‘Drip’ irrigation, where hoses are underground, is the most efficient but also the most capital intensive. Spraying fields is the least expensive in capital outlay, but can be wasteful if not used well. That information includes time of day, soil health, plant requirements and so forth.
  • Seasons: Some crops can be rotated to ensure optimal soil health, while more than one crop per season can be planted on some fields. Data from the USDA and the GIS systems helps farmers find ways to get more productivity from fields, while managing their water consumption more efficiently.
  • Fallowing: In some instances, letting a field lay uncultivated can save enough water for sale to make the farm profitable, keeping the farmer in business, and his other fields fertile.
  • Water Run-Off: While primarily part of the management system, SWIIM is able to monitor and measure water run-off from fields back to streams and rivers. This information can be used to provide the farmer with additional income, as water that is returned is paid for by municipalities.

These kind of factors have complex interactions. SWIIM provides farmers with the ability to experiment—online—with various scenarios, finding one that they feel comfortable with for the coming seasons. One can imagine using SWIIM one year to maximize current practices, and slowly integrating new practices over the coming years. 

Management Package

The second half of SWIIM’s system is management. The farmer who has planned changes needs the data to ensure that they are working as close to anticipated as possible. At its heart, the SWIIM management system wirelessly connects sensors that tests soil and water content, GIS data that includes weather and satellite information, and observations from equipped rovers on the ground and low altitude photography. All the information is then analyzed, providing farmers with real data on how the farm is doing as well as reports to submit to regulatory agencies and water boards. 

Business Model

The company plans to lease their software to individuals and to businesses in designated territories. Kevin France, Director of Business and Strategic Development at Regeneris Management Group, said that they are in seven figure talks for leasing a large territory for hemp farmers. He chuckled, saying that they had not anticipated this market but was happy with the outcome. 

He went on to say that the company had been bringing water buyers and sellers together because they are an innovator. However, they do not see themselves as water brokers as the market matures. “SWIIM is a tool to facilitate a market,” he said, “It’s a paper process that reimburses farmers. We lease the tool.”

For farmers, who can be conservative about technology, SWIIM started with client based servers because farmers were skeptical of ‘the cloud’. That is changing as users gain experience. SWIIM is also designing a tablet app that will make viewing data easier than ever. 

Because the company uses off-the-shelf hardware that can be installed in less than a week, the software can be ‘up and running’ quickly. Currently, the company sees a payback for the capital investment of 1 year. From then on, the farmer leases the product, so that SWIIM can keep updating the software and improving their algorithms as they gather data.

Mr. France went on to stress the importance of SWIIM’s dual function: keeping farmers farming and conserving water. It is a dream that has been several years in the making. The parent company, Regeneris Management Group, got grants amounting to some $400,000, which helped fund early research. That was supplemented by $3.2 million raised from Angels, friends and family. The funds have gone toward developing the software, but also to form alliances with universities and agencies to study farming practices and incorporate existing data. The deficit irrigation for corn, previously mentioned, is one outcome. 

Mr. French added that companies should never build a business plan on grants. “They can really help get the research going, but it’s never going to be enough to fund a company.” He concluded by mentioning that their patent had been approved recently. He added, “It’s nice to not say patent pending any more.”