The Internet of Things is set to push the future of farming to the next level. Smart agriculture is already more commonplace among farmers, and high-tech farms are quickly becoming the standard thanks to agricultural drones, sensors, supervisory control, data acquisition and remote alarm notification systems.
Located in Boardman, Oregon, Threemile Canyon Farms LLC was founded in 1998 with a vision to create a modern agriculture operation at the intersection of productivity and sustainability. Threemile has built its farming operations on a “closed-loop” system of sustainable agriculture that recycles organic waste by putting it back to use in the soil, resulting in little to no waste while increasing cost savings.
Growing more than a dozen different fruits and vegetables that are cultivated in 385 crop circles that average up to 120 acres each is no small task. The crops are on different irrigation and fertilization regimens and the organic crops require an even more specialized program. This farm, which encompasses approximately 140 square miles and over 30,000 acres of irrigated farmland, epitomizes high-tech farming.
Each circle is watered and fertilized by center pivot irrigation. The irrigation pipes are supported by trusses mounted on wheeled towers that make a circuit of the field under their own power. Gun-style sprinklers spray water or fertilizer out from the pipes at set intervals, with smaller nozzles closest to the pivot and the largest nozzles at the end of the line. Typically, a main pipeline connects to a cluster, where two to four pivots are fed, with a tank head. The pivot pipes leave this location and go out to the center pivot. These clusters contain all electrical, control wires, water valves and cluster pressures. This central spot is where the pivot control panels are located along with network communications equipment.
The water, fertilizer, chemical, speed, direction, duration and variable rate of the center pivots can all be controlled, including different combinations, such as operating at a 50-degree angle at 100% capacity then slowing down to 20% and then speeding up again. The settings can be programmed into the panels to keep the crops in optimal conditions. Additionally, there is GPS on the end tower so the team knows exactly where a pivot is directed on the crop circle at any given time. Threemile’s efficient irrigation techniques and management systems increase the cost-effectiveness of crop production, reduce soil erosion and lessen energy requirements.
The techniques also help to lower their annual energy bill while enhancing and sustaining crop production, the environment and water use efficiency. This entire process makes Threemile more efficient, allowing them to increase crop production and yield and save money.
Mark Ashby, Threemile’s information technology and automation systems manager, oversees the farm’s control systems and complex network that ensure the crops, irrigation and fertilizer systems are continuously monitored. This helps guarantee healthy crops and high yields.
This sophisticated technology has been a work in progress for more than a decade. Ashby and his team began by implementing a large wireless network as the foundation for a better, more reliable system that allows them to control the crops’ maintenance to the smallest detail. With the goal of improving reliability and control even further, pump stations were retrofitted with upgraded programmable logic controllers and fitted with medium-voltage variable frequency drives to control the motor and pump speeds to anything between zero and 100%. Over the years, the technology continued to increase. It now includes more than 200 programmable logic controllers, a 140-square mile wireless umbrella, 25 communication towers, a variety of fiber-optic/cat5/cat6 network connections and a Gigabit air fiber network seamlessly connects all the systems.
Threemile’s efficient irrigation techniques and management systems increase the cost-effectiveness of crop production, reduce soil erosion and lessen energy requirements. The techniques also help to lower their annual energy bill while enhancing and sustaining crop production, the environment and water use efficiency.
The architecture of network servers run a SCADA system (supervisory control and data acquisition) integrated with remote alarm notification software. They not only continuously monitor the conditions on the farm but report back and collect valuable data upon any change within the system. This information is stored in databases for mining and provides analytics for continuous review which can uncover opportunities to make the operation more efficient.
This network continuously monitors the water pressure through the pipes that connect to the clusters that then feed each pivot. Monitoring is done via pressure transducers to the clusters. In addition to the pressure and flow being monitored, the team watches many other system components. For example, at the river stations, the water that is pumped out of the Columbia River uses 1,250 horsepower and 1,500 horsepower pumps and high-pressure shutdown techniques for the river and booster stations that also require monitoring.
With peak irrigation volumes during summer months of up to 200,000 gallons of water per minute being pumped, any aberration from normal levels can lead to devastating consequences including costly machine repairs and damaged crops.
“It’s imperative that I know when there is a high-pressure shut down, when a motor faults, equipment doesn’t start or if pressure is too high or too low. These are the circumstances in which we depend on the remote alarm notification software,” says Ashby.
When things do not operate as they should, the software sends out alarm notifications via an SMS text message or through emails that allow Ashby and his team to intervene and rectify the situation.
“I can’t only depend on someone sitting at the control desk to notice everything,” says Ashby. “For example, it’s a lot easier to pull a pump/motor when we’re alerted to a possible problem than down the road when it burns up; particularly when a rebuilt motor costs up to $50,000.”
In addition to forecasting potential problems, since everything is interconnected, it’s critical to get an alarm when something isn’t working. If even one of the 72-inch pipes coming from the river station shuts down, multiple pumps that are pumping between 10,000 gallons to 15,000 gallons of water per minute will stop, leaving the crops vulnerable and causing safety issues. Having the ability to go back and compare past data to see why an event like this happened, helps them prevent future problems. Threemile has a significant investment in pumps and motors, with upwards of $200,000 for each set. Ensuring that they’re running correctly is critical to the farm’s operation and bottom line.