Water gates

More efficient irrigation in the works

Brian Blair is the Irrigo team leader, an officer in the Navy and a graduate student at the University of Nevada, Reno.

Brian Blair is the Irrigo team leader, an officer in the Navy and a graduate student at the University of Nevada, Reno.

Photo/Sage Leehey

For more information about the Sontag Entrepreneurship Competition, visit www.unr.edu/sontag.

Water—or rather the lack of it—is an oft-discussed issue in the region right now, and appropriately, a new Northern Nevada business called Irrigo is working to bring more efficient water use for flood-irrigated agriculture.

“It’s an automated system,” Irrigo team leader Brian Blair said. “It works over the internet, the computer, and we monitor the field to figure out the most efficient way to do it. By watering the field more efficiently, the farmer can get more crop out of his field or during droughts like this, you can actually irrigate more land than normally it would allow.”

The team’s business plan recently won first place in the Sontag Entrepreneurship Competition, which gave them $50,000 as capital to get the business started. Blair said they expect about 20 percent less water use in their irrigation systems, based on previous research.

“We send commands to the gates over cellular data networks to actually open and close the gates to only give the field exactly the water it needs to get the best crop growth,” Blair said. “The way it’s done now is all manually. Guys will actually go out to a field and actually manually open and close. It’s really time-consuming, and it’s really inefficient because they’re not timing everything exactly the way it needs to be.”

Blair is a graduate student in the Master of Business Administration program at the University of Nevada, Reno, which allowed his team to participate in the competition. The team also includes water researcher from the Desert Research Institute Jenn Frederick, network engineer in Vermont Kevin Thorley, control system engineer in Fallon Nick Pinson and test engineer Don Frederick. Colby Frey from Frey Ranch and Churchill Vineyards is not an official member of the team but provides work space and agricultural expertise to the group.

Frey has helped the project along, allowing the team to hear what will and won’t work for farmers and getting them the gates to work with.

“We actually have the farmer perspective as opposed to just a bunch of nerds getting together,” Blair said.

The process is slow-going because each team member has a “real job” and works on this project in their free time, but it’s doing well, according to Blair. They’re currently working on software and hardware development and will probably begin manufacturing this winter. Next year, the team will focus on implementing and testing their product on farms. After that, they’ll begin selling it.

“About two years from now, we expect our first commercial sales, everything in-state initially,” Blair said. “Essentially, three or four years from now we’re looking to sell out of state, and then really get into commercialization in about five years—try to make it into a bigger company.”

Blair said the team’s goal is to make Irrigo successful and make it a viable business that can grow larger over time. Blair himself is an officer in the Navy and has been in Fallon for six years. He likes the area and hopes this project might help plant roots here.