Doing More With Less Using Emerging Ag Technologies

New technologies help growers increase yields in difficult environments while preserving natural resources.
Doing More With Less Using Emerging Ag Technologies
Healthy soil is essential for growing productive crops, including this field of soybeans in Robinson, Illinois. Photography by Jay Fram
Growers who work with Phytech and Sound Agriculture are increasing yields by double digits while preserving valuable natural resources. Most notably, technologies coming from these companies are helping growers make yield advances possible on marginal land.

New #agtech helps growers increase yields in difficult environments while preserving natural resources.

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Mark Sherfy, the water resource manager for D & J Farm Management in Bakersfield, California, is one of those growers. Sherfy rolled out irrigation planning technology from Phytech to all of the farm’s almond trees. Last year, he says, the farm saw a 30% increase in yields using less water.

“I began working here one year after the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) changed the landscape of farming in California,” Sherfy remembers. Around Bakersfield, growers were facing a hard decision: Find a new line of business, or find a way to grow their crops with less water.

“I think that looking at the soil and trying to find ways to enhance all the resources that are there is the next frontier.”

Steve Pitstick
Illinois Grower
But knowing when a plant needs water and how much can be a challenge. “Plants don’t speak English,” says Sarig Duek, CEO of the Israel-based company Phytech. “So the only way growers know if their plants need water is to look at them. The problem is, by the time that stress is evident, you’re usually five to 10 days too late.”

Do More With Less Using Emerging Ag Technologies
A dendrometer measures the diameter of a tree to help assess its hydration; a Phytech app offers color-coded irrigation recommendations. Photography courtesy of Phytech
Phytech offers a high-tech solution to that problem. It uses a dendrometer to measure the contraction and expansion of the plant’s trunk, and an app that collects that data and layers it with information about the climate to offer growers color-coded irrigation recommendations — ranging from green, meaning the plant is experiencing no stress, to red, indicating the plant is experiencing extreme stress and immediate action is required.

In addition to increasing yields, Sherfy credits Phytech for revolutionizing the way his farm irrigates. “Back in the day, everyone would do furrow irrigation — flooding a crop row about once a week,” Sherfy says. “The problem is, you waste water because you get standing water that the trees can’t use, and the water evaporates.”

Instead of furrow irrigation, Phytech recommended daily watering — “and it told us exactly how much our plants needed,” Sherfy says. This year, he’s planning a trial run with the business’s table grapes — “not to just save water, but to fully utilize 100% of the water I put out,” Sherfy says.

Source: A Groundbreaking Solution

Like Phytech, Sound Agriculture works to help growers maximize their yields in yield-limiting environments. With its new Source product, launched last December for use during the 2020 growing season, Sound Agriculture is helping growers increase yields by tapping into the nutrients already present in their soil.

Eric Davidson, Ph.D., CEO of Sound Agriculture, is confident that Sound’s approach can have a dramatic impact on yield potential. “Source mimics plant-to-microbe signals, unlocking the nitrogen and phosphorus that already exist in the field,” he says. “On average, we see around a 9-bushel-per-acre yield increase for corn, with some soil types seeing 20- to 30-bushel increases over untreated areas.”

Davidson sees a strong connection between yield and soil nutrients. “Growers understand that the soil has the ability to provide for the plant,” he says. “Yet every season, extra bushels are left in the field because current products aren’t able to unlock the soil’s full potential.”

Steve Pitstick, a grower who produces corn and soybeans near Maple Park, Illinois, agrees. “I think that looking at the soil and trying to find ways to enhance all the resources that are there is the next frontier.”

Source is a foliar spray and is easy to use, thanks to its compatibility with other products. Source can be added to a tank mix — so it doesn’t require any additional equipment or extra trips into the field.

In 2019, Pitstick used Source, and the results were immediate. “In my first year of trials, I experienced an average 17.1-bushel-per-acre increase in yield — across multiple soil types,” he says. “Based on the results of that small-scale testing, I’m planning to purchase Source for use next year and increase my Source testing in different fields.”

A Venture in Sustainability

Both Phytech and Sound Agriculture are companies in the Syngenta Ventures portfolio. With a mission to grow companies that share the Syngenta vision of producing more with less, Syngenta Ventures was one of the world’s first venture capital teams dedicated to agriculture.

By investing in innovation and supporting solutions that help growers farm sustainably, Syngenta Ventures, now more than a decade old, ties into the Syngenta Good Growth Plan — a plan that lays out the commitments the company is making to secure the future of agriculture and our planet’s ecosystems.

According to Phytech’s Duek, a commitment to sustainability is an important step forward. “The growers we work with are using Phytech to optimize yield and quality — and they’re doing all that constantly, all while continuing to save water,” he says. “When we meet with growers in the morning, they smell the ground, and you can see them smiling. Their success stories have built our business and make it all worthwhile.”