Arable’s Jess Bollinger sat down with Mason Lanphear, founder of Vital Agronomics, to discuss how his expertise in agronomic science and technology can provide real-world benefits to farmers in the face of increasing government oversight, fast-paced technological innovation, and unpredictable climate volatility. Mason lives and works in Yakima Valley, WA, in the pacific northwestern United States; it is an area of fertile soils and incredible crop diversity, with over 300 crop types grown in the area, including many orchard fruits. Farms in the semi-arid Yakima Valley rely mostly on irrigation, which must be tracked and rationed to comply with strict regulations. His proximity to his clients gives him unparalleled knowledge of the challenges they face, and allows his relationships with growers to be sincere and hands-on as he works with them to problem-solve and reduce their risk every day.

One of the most engaged and innovative people we’ve worked with, Mason is a master at understanding how deep and accurate data can take farming to the next level of efficiency. He has deployed a series of Arable Mark devices and connected soil probes across his customers’ fields to collect contextual, aggregated data for defined management zones, such as an irrigation block or single-varietal field. This highly organized system informs his precision irrigation strategies, helps him benchmark season-over-season data for individual fields, and reveals microclimate fluctuations or early disease risk. A proactive, data-driven approach to field management like this helps him put his extensive agronomic expertise into practice and introduce his customers to cutting-edge technology and insights in a simple and painless way. Read on to see how he does it.

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Mason Lanphear of Vital Agronomics (left). In a blueberry field with one of his customers and the Arable Mark 2 (right). Photos courtesy Mason Lanphear.

Arable Labs: In the past year, you’ve launched Vital Agronomics in order to help farming operations embrace new technologies and better manage costs. Has agriculture always been in your background?

Mason Lanphear: Well, initially, my interest was in environmental science and GIS, I studied it in university and discovered a passion for remote sensing. I started out working for a remote sensing company in the Seattle area that would send me to farms across the Pacific Northwest and in South America, and in the process found I really enjoyed working with growers. I’m able to apply my background in plant science, soil science and remote sensing, bridge all of the research and technology and see that come to fruition on the farm in a real-world application. Being able to use technology to help growers implement science-based farming practices is what I’m really excited about.

I think in order to embrace new technologies, growers need to start with high temporal resolution data to drive daily decision making. That’s something I immediately realized while using aerial imagery from drones and manned aircraft. There is a lot of potential value in aerial imagery to help growers understand variability in their fields but the data is generally limited in temporal resolution, and historically most imagery providers have neglected to translate the data into management decisions. That’s why I’m so interested in using Arable’s technology: it provides the high cadence data and scalability that farmers need to implement new farming practices.

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A few of the Arable Mark 2 locations that Mason has deployed in blueberries at Roy Farms in Yakima Valley, WA, showing soil moisture content, as seen in the Arable web app. Photos courtesy Mason Lanphear.

I’m not a water expert by any means, but I do have some insight into grower concerns, especially around the water conservation puzzle. Growers are not simply trying to reduce water usage; they need to optimize yield and quality for every gallon of water used. Solving this challenge will require a combination of crop water demand modeling, tracking applied water and crop yields. Along with helping to conserve a finite resource, growers also benefit from reduced energy costs, less wear-and-tear on irrigation systems, and improved yields. Changing consumer preferences are also incentivizing farmers to grow more with less water.

Some important context is that part of our reservoir system is the alpine snowpack and we rely on snow melt for irrigation. This year was a La Niña year so the snowpack is well above normal, but 2015 was a water-short year with some water rationing. In those situations, where land has senior water rights, you’ll likely be alright during the growing season, whereas the junior water rights may not guarantee the capacity to meet the needs of your crop. We’re helping growers prepare for these more challenging years that may present themselves in the future.

AL: What led you to want to start your own business, and what do you do differently than other consulting services?

ML: Overcoming these management challenges requires establishing long-term partnerships between growers, technology companies and service providers to develop solutions that work. I watched as other consulting companies weren’t building solutions rooted in actual problems faced by farmers. There was a large gap between traditional farming practices and new technologies—a gap that I knew I could help close. l like to understand how growers and agribusiness operate, what is their workflow, and how the technology could fit into that organization. In my previous role, I’d travel to meet with growers on occasion but there wasn’t the collaboration that I felt was necessary to develop impactful solutions. By relocating to the Yakima Valley I’m able to meet with growers on a daily basis and better understand the needs of their operations.

Growers see a lot of long-term value in new technologies and developing new practices—like automated irrigation and predictive analytics—but these tools take several years to develop and implement. With Vital, I wanted to add immediate value by helping growers track the operational aspects of their business and assess performance. Oftentimes operational records are stored in Excel files or even pen and paper, so we're helping growers aggregate these records into centralized databases so they can leverage the data in near-real time to improve operational efficiency.

On the irrigation side of things, we’re using reflectance data from the Arable Mark and aerial imagery from drones and satellites to develop predictive models of leaf area index and irrigation crop coefficients. This enables us to more precisely estimate crop water needs throughout the growing season and remove a lot of the uncertainty in the decision making process.

A lot of growers are also trying to navigate data ownership. Early on, I made the strategic decision to help growers develop in-house record keeping and analytics platforms leveraging open source software. Other companies, using proprietary technology, were trying to hold the growers’ data hostage and I saw that as an opportunity to differentiate.

By fostering these partnerships I believe we can bridge the gap between traditional farming practices and new technology, and give the technology industry a better reputation in agriculture.

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Gorgeous blueberry fields at Roy Farms in Yakima Valley, WA. Photo courtesy Mason Lanphear.

AL: What are the major challenges for growers in Washington state?

ML: Washington is a very favorable climate for agriculture. The soil and microclimates are good for a very diverse set of highly productive crops (we grow over 300 crops). But the cost of labor is significantly higher when compared to other markets around the world. The recent State Supreme Court ruling on labor costs, for better or worse, will drive the transition to automation. There’s already not a huge labor pool in our region. It’s not two guys operating on 10,000 acres. It’s more likely 5,000 acres managed by a 700-person team. We produce a lot of crops, tree fruit, all manually harvested. We are quite a bit away from automating some of those processes, but automated irrigation is being quickly adopted and beginning to deliver a lot of value. This is exciting as it opens up agriculture to more folks that are really passionate about technology and innovation in farming.

We are keen to support specialty growers in the Pacific Northwest because irrigation is such a critical part of their operation. We primarily work with clients in the Yakima valley area right now, but are always open to working with growers in different regions and helping farming operations embrace new technologies.

Jess Bollinger is Arable's VP Sales & Business Development.