Meet Inge Bisconer, IA’s new president

In this Q&A, learn about what Bisconer sees as the biggest challenges and opportunities the irrigation industry faces in the upcoming year.
BY LUKE REYNOLDS
Inge-Bisconer-headshot
At the close of the 2023 Irrigation Show and Education Week, Inge Bisconer, CID, CLIA, managing member of Surf ‘N Earth Enterprises, Cardiff by the Sea, California, became president of the Irrigation Association. Bisconer has served on the IA Board since 2018 and took over for Randy Wood, who served as the 2023 IA president. 

Bisconer shares how her experience shapes how she sees the future of the irrigation industry, both its challenges and opportunities.

How has your IA membership and involvement played an integral role throughout your career?

I’ve been going to Irrigation Shows since the early 1980s when I left corporate irrigated agriculture to join an irrigation manufacturer’s team. Back then the focus was connecting with colleagues, courting customers, and scouting the competition. I learned a lot, worked really hard but had an awful lot of fun. The next focus was getting IA certified to bolster my professional irrigation credentials. I had a BS in ag from the University of California, Davis, and a PCA license in every category from my time in production ag, but my technical irrigation expertise at that point had been absorbed on the job from talented mentors. Obtaining the IA CLIA and CID certifications enabled me to formally integrate the science of irrigation into my work, and it was important not only for the training but also the credibility. Later, taking leadership positions on IA working committees, getting abstracts accepted to deliver presentations at the annual Irrigation Show on the work I was doing, and advocating for efficient irrigation at IA events such as the DC Fly-In took my career to a different level. These activities gave me not only experience and knowledge but invaluable exposure as well, which led to more and more industry speaking engagements and opportunities to serve. They were a win-win-win for me, my employer and the industry. In appreciation of how the IA bolstered my career, I’ve agreed to serve on its board of directors, executive committee and now as its president with great honor.  

What are you most looking forward to during your time as president?

First, I look forward to working with my fellow executive committee and board members to provide direction, support and feedback to our talented, hardworking professional staff team as they modernize and re-energize the Irrigation Association. The world is changing quickly, and I’m confident we can now embrace change and position ourselves for growth. Second, I look forward to preparing for the annual Irrigation Show and Education Week in Long Beach where we’ll showcase the year’s progress in supporting our mission, especially in advancing policies and campaigns to increase adoption of efficient irrigation products, services and practices, and revitalizing our workforce development efforts. Whether you’re from industry, an end-user or an affiliate in government or academia, young or old, in boots or suits, there will be something for you in Long Beach. 

What do you see as the future of the irrigation industry?

The future is bright. Our industry will play a major role in providing solutions to problems arising from climate change such as drought, floods and more extreme weather events, and meeting the challenge to produce more food, fuel and fiber with fewer resources for a growing global population. Irrigated agriculture and green spaces will contribute to carbon sequestration, and newer, more efficient technologies will reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Although the average age of the American farmer is in the 60s, I’m inspired by the recent increase in attendance of women in irrigation and young professionals at the annual Irrigation Show. A younger, more diverse demographic is infusing the industry with much-needed energy and ideas. Coupled with the wisdom of the veterans, there is nothing we can’t do. One of my earliest career experiences was being the only woman in a room full of 80 men at a PCA continuing education meeting. I’m happy to see that this ratio has changed since that day in 1982, and that a more diverse demographic is entering our industry. I’m confident this trend will continue because our industry, our country and our planet need the brains and energy of everyone to solve the challenges we face. We cannot afford to overlook any demographic that can help our cause, nor should we. By definition, the USA is the land of equal opportunity for all — and today, American irrigation needs everyone to produce the food, fuel and fiber — and green spaces — needed for civilized society to survive and thrive. 

What do you see as the major trends in the industry?

I view ag and landscape irrigation through the lens of two equally important disciplines — the creation and performance of the irrigation system itself and the operation of the system. There is a trend toward automation, but people recognize that this is fruitless if the system itself is not operating properly, thus improving existing system performance is an equally important trend. The trend toward adoption of pressurized sprinkler and drip/micro irrigation vs. gravity irrigation will continue as well. As of 2018, there are approximately 50 million irrigated ag acres in the U.S. Over half are irrigated with mechanized pivots and linears, about 15% drip/micro, and the remainder gravity (we’ll have updated 2023 data from the USDA in November 2024). The price and availability of irrigation inputs varies widely geographically, but in general, nutrients (fertilizer) and energy are very expensive, and both skilled and unskilled labor is tough to come by. These inputs often drive adoption of irrigation technology more than the cost and/or availability of water itself. Thus low tech, inefficient gravity irrigated acres will continue to be converted to higher tech, more efficient gravity, or more efficient new pressurized sprinkler and drip systems where warranted. In addition, and in some cases more importantly, there will be a trend toward upgrading many of the existing, aged drip and sprinkler systems because distribution uniformity performance has degraded over time. California alone has two-thirds of the U.S.’s drip systems, many of which are due for upgrades. Future business will trend toward both new system and retrofit system markets, but there is an equally important trend toward using a more proactive, consultative sales approach to monetize the benefits of efficient irrigation, i.e., demonstrating that the investment is warranted based upon reduced input costs and potential increased crop yield and quality revenue. It takes skill to show that the return, the ROI, is reasonable because it is often complicated and always site-specific. And once the efficient system is in place, end users need help in successfully operating, maintaining and automating it. This is not only a reasonable expectation, but a business opportunity as well. There is also a trend toward sensing/control/automation, but its adoption has been slow because end users, especially farmers and their agronomic crop advisors, don’t just want data. Rather, they want data translated into user friendly, actionable dashboards that lead to a recommendation of when (frequency) to irrigate/fertigate and for how long (duration). This is challenging, but crop advisers need efficient irrigation and fertigation to achieve their production goals, and data — together with artificial intelligence, artificial general intelligence and machine learning technology — are helping them get it. Landscape irrigation automation is getting closer to the thermostat analogy where the data drives the irrigation event with minimal human interaction. This is exciting and spells the need for the industry’s equipment innovators, together with the system integrators and installers, to better connect and step out of their historical silos to successfully implement it on the ground. 

What advice do you have for someone just starting out in the industry?

If you are new to the industry, I urge you first to join the Irrigation Association, and to then reach out — get involved — and ask for help! You’ll find many in this business who are giving and willing to help you, and many ways to get involved such as: get certified, submit a proposal to give a presentation to share your particular area of knowledge, teach a class, volunteer to work on a project, or sign up to advocate on behalf of our industry at your local, state or national level. We all have something to contribute and we’re all needed. Best of all you’ll find that by giving you receive and benefit more than you gave. After all, isn’t the best gift giving? Fortunately the IA has recently launched a volunteer structure that accommodates participation in both longer-term projects as well as “episodic” projects where the need for expertise emerges suddenly and responses are needed quickly. I encourage members, new and old alike, to sign up and step up when and where needed. And for the captains of this industry — the executives, owners and investors — remember that agriculture is the core of civilized society, and that without landscapes civilized societies would not be so. We are lucky to work in an industry where pressure to overcome challenges is actually a privilege. Please remember the Irrigation Association in your annual budgets and staffing as the organization that helps our industry and our people thrive. 

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