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Silicon Valley struggles to pitch water-saving tech to farmers

Olivier Jerphagnon needed a customer. So he drove toward the farmland north of Fresno, with his marketing director by his side.

They came to convince farmers that PowWow Energy's Pump Monitor software can manage irrigation via smartphone. They spotted a prospect off the side of Highway 99: a work crew near a massive pump in an unmarked almond orchard.

A tall Frenchman with a boyish face and rapid-fire sales pitch, Jerphagnon, 40, can be hard to understand on the best of days. This would not be one of those days. None of the bewildered workers spoke much English, and Jerphagnon's Castilian Spanish was little help. As the pair walked back to their car, a red pickup truck roared up. The ranch manager greeted them: Hey, how you doing?

"Meaning — What are you doing here?" Jerphagnon recalled.

Silicon Valley, meet the Central Valley.

If California is to find a technological exit from its perpetual water crises, it will take many more of these awkward encounters. The next generation of precision agriculture — a world of wireless sensors, cloud-based data crunching, aerial imaging and app-based decision-making — may germinate in Silicon Valley, but it will have to take root here, where growers soak up about 80% of the water diverted for human use.

Squeezing more crop out of every drop of irrigation could save enough water to supply between 1 million and 4 million homes annually, by some estimates.

But as Jerphagnon was about to find out, the courtship between tech entrepreneurs and farmers can be slow.

"Sometimes, there's a little disconnect between what the tech people offer and what the farmers want," said Helle Petersen, director of the Water, Energy & Technology Incubator at Fresno State, which has been helping PowWow get a foothold in the Central Valley for more than a year. "Farming is old school here. They like to meet local people, talk about things, where they went to high school and such. But once you know them, you know 10 other people."

The WET center — a sleek wedge of corrugated metal and brick planted beside experimental fields — was created by local growers and economic development officials trying to make Fresno into an agricultural technology hub. It has since come to serve as a patient matchmaker between two valleys separated by 80 miles and countless cultural differences.

It's not that farming hasn't entered the digital age. Since the first farmer took an aerial photo of his cotton field in the 1920s, growers have used data to drive decisions. Nearly a century later, precision agriculture has brought tractors guided by global positioning systems and soil moisture sensors linked to cellphones. Black-and-white photos from propeller planes have become infrared images from drones and satellites.

Buying such systems, however, can cost tens of thousands of dollars and may pencil out only for larger farm operations.

For example, a typical large-scale California farm shells out about $50 to $60 an acre per year for a wireless remote sensing system from Hortau, a Canadian company that entered the California market about seven years ago, according to Jeremy Otto, the company's statewide head of sales.

But only farms larger than 5,000 acres tend to save enough to justify the cost of a typical system, according to Lux Research, a market analysis firm.

In California, gradual adoption of first-generation precision agriculture has helped keep water demand roughly flat for several decades, even as yields steadily increase. Since the 1960s, growers have turned away from inefficient flood irrigation, once prevalent on more than two-thirds of irrigated acreage, according to the Pacific Institute. Use of micro-sprinklers and drip irrigation rose in that time from 15% to 38% of irrigated acres.

Further adoption of those and other measures could save up to 6 million acre-feet per year without affecting yield, with as much as a third of that potentially available for other uses, the institute found. An acre-foot is about what two average households use in a year.

Growers readily recognize the opportunity to save both water and the energy to move it. Growers of high-value crops, such as wine grapes, have been early adopters of smart irrigation systems. Average family farmers, though, confront a perplexing choice of gizmos that threaten to drown them in data without telling them exactly what they should do differently.

"There's a number of start-ups that think they have a solution that will revolutionize agricultural irrigation," said Sara Olson, a research analyst for Lux Research. "Most of them don't have the market reach to make much of an impact. For a lot of the major players, there's still confusion about what the best system will be."

RainBird, Valley, Lindsay, Jain, Hortau and other established irrigation companies offer a wide variety of smart irrigation packages. Hortau recently raised $5 million to expand its reach in California beyond several hundred large-scale growers.

PowWow so far has signed up about two dozen growers for PumpMonitor. At its heart is an algorithm that converts electricity usage data from so-called smart meters into water flow through the pumps hooked to those meters. But PumpMonitor has evolved from a leak detector to an all-encompassing irrigation monitoring system that incorporates data from many sources.

The California Energy Commission last month gave PowWow a grant of $2.3 million to start trials of the more advanced system.

Not surprisingly, the next generation of ag and food tech has attracted more attention from venture capital, which pumped more than $2 billion into the sector in several hundred deals last year, according to AgFunder, a crowdfunding platform. The median deal was $1.5 million, and it went to companies that were less than 3 years old, said AgFunder's chief executive, Rob Leclerc.

"It's a little bit like the Internet in 1997," Leclerc said. "Farmers are kind of looking at this and saying: What's the value? They're waiting for the early adopters to go in, make money and do well, and then they'll follow suit."

That's why Jerphagnon needed to convince that farm manager, Ron Storelli, that he wasn't a trespassing huckster. Dropping the Fresno State WET Center name loosened him up a bit, and soon they were making friendly wagers on rain. Storelli seemed enthusiastic, Jerphagnon recalled. But he warned: "I need to talk with Pat first."

"Pat" is Pat Ricchiuti, 68, president of P-R Farms, which owns the almond orchard on which Jerphagnon and company had been trespassing. A third-generation grower, Ricchiuti farms 5,000 or so acres in Fresno and Madera County — mostly almonds and olives — with a tight fist that runs in the family. Conservative is how most describe him — a warning as much as a description.

"My dad still has a flip phone," said his son, Vincent Ricchiuti, 32, the farm's director of operations. He also has people print out his emails.

It took four months of working through midlevel managers — and a successful trial run of his PowWow on P-R Farms' worst field — before Jerphagnon could present his data to Pat.

"Doesn't sound right," Pat told him. "Tell me something I don't know." And so it went, from spring to fall.

Finally, close to a year after they barged onto P-R property, Jerphagnon and Ricchiuti shook hands.

That was in September; Jerphagnon is still working on getting a signed contract.

"I've seen a lot of different types of technology that's been presented and it doesn't really give you the kind of information that you need, that you can actually see results," Pat Ricchiuti said. "I gotta get bang for my buck and make sure I can get the mileage out of it. I gotta really, really look at this thing."

geoffrey.mohan@latimes.com

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