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January 25, 2017

How LABS Uses IoT to Improve Food Security and Water Data

LABS food security

As part of its commitment to address grand challenges with IoT ( Internet of Things ) solutions, Impact LABS is piloting a number of IoT solutions with small and mid-sized agricultural operations in Southeastern New England.

In this interview, LABS Food Security Lead Elizabeth Wiley explains how gathering essential data on groundwater supply, soil quality, as well as equipment and machinery can empower growers, prevent or eliminate losses and inform local and national policy.

We have supplemented this interview with links to interview clips with some of our pilot hosts. You can also watch the full video:

Can you give a quick overview of the LABS pilots that relate directly to food security?

With regards to food security pilots, we focus on five themes: soil quality, microclimate conditions, groundwater, inventory traceability, and building management. This last one really pertains to monitoring nano-climate spaces such as hoop houses, greenhouses, and other controlled/ semi-controlled environments that have material impact on risk. But it all begins with monitoring the natural resource inputs. Without better knowledge about and management of natural resources, we cannot produce affordable, healthy food in abundance, profitably without degrading the environment. That is why we believe these resources are so important to instrument. When we pilot with a host site, we work directly with them, mainly by listening, to learn determine how instrumentation data about certain natural resources could help them to avoid risk, meet compliance, respond faster or support their decision making processes.

LABS focuses primarily on pilot projects with small farmers and local businesses. Why is this so important?

This is important because they are the people that support and grow our local food and economies. Real-time instrumentation, commonly referred to as, IoT, can help growers make decisions in a timely manner that can have significant advantages to their operations. IoT-enabled precision agriculture solutions are available to big ag companies, but if we want to help make our small to mid-size growers more resilient, then we have to make sure this technology, these solutions, this data and the new best practices are available to small operators at prices they can afford.

Real-time instrumentation makes growers more resilient in the face of economic and environmental uncertainties and it is exactly these uncertainties that can make or break the small to mid-size grower.

Our goal is to demonstrate how real-time instrumentation can be advantageous for our growers in Massachusetts. If we can do that here, then we can scale this model to any number of small and mid-sized agricultural operations anywhere in the country — and many markets globally. There are more than 2 million small farmers in the United States. We have to support the growers in our backyards – they are true stewards of the land.

Let’s talk about water. Why is groundwater data so important?

We have substantial gaps in our water intelligence: Where is it? How much do we have? How is its quality? These are just a few unanswered questions. Only 2.5% of the Earth’s water is potable, and a portion of that is trapped in glaciers, so this information is critical. Through our groundwater monitoring pilots, we demonstrate ways that individuals can begin to understand and collect groundwater data that will support them in having a voice in how water is utilized, cared for, and potentially distributed.

We don’t currently have the data to make truly resilient policy decisions or investment decisions as it pertains to water. This issue will only become more debated as we continue to deal with droughts like we faced this past summer in many markets in New England.

Which LABS pilots are directly addressing water data?

We have a variety of pilots focused on water. From the food security lens, we are working within the venues of agriculture, fisheries, and aquaculture to monitor water quality and groundwater levels.

Have you had any unexpected results or findings so far?

This past fall we began what we refer to at LABS as a ‘Super-Pilot’. A Super-Pilot involves multiple host sites sharing some of their data to create valuable new data services. In this case, we are currently working with 8 hosts monitoring 17 wells in South Westport and South Dartmouth, MA to monitor groundwater. We are hoping to add 15 potential wells that would bring us up to 32 total wells. Well owners receive real-time information about how much water they have in their wells, when their pumps start and stop, and well recovery rates.

We are still at the beginning stages of this pilot but so far we have had some great outcomes. One of our hosts, Fred Dabney, owner of Quansett Nurseries, was the first to install groundwater monitoring sensors onto two of his wellheads. This past summer, while many growers in the region were struggling with the drought, Fred was able to access his groundwater data daily to determine how much water was actually in his well. This data not only gave him great peace-of-mind but helped him to make crucial decisions regarding his water usage.

Another outcome that we have just recently experienced with this project was that by monitoring individual wells, we were able to identify that two of our host sites were experiencing unusual pumping activity. This prompted our field operation team to go on site and to test the irrigation pressure gauges and pumps. Using a clamp-on ammeter and software provided by the developer of the groundwater monitoring sensors, the outcomes showed that that each site was experiencing leaks in their system. For one of the sites, when they called their well servicer out to fix the leak, within 24 hours their well showed a 2 ft. decrease in the amount of water being pumped out of the aquifer with a continuing decline post maintenance. This early detection system identified a leak that would have otherwise gone unnoticed and would have potentially become a bigger problem. It also saved water which would have been significant if this happened during the growing season when water usage is at its peak.

What are your plans to expand food security and water-related pilots in 2017?

We are planning to expand our pilots and community outreach. In 2016, we focused heavily on the South Coast. In 2017, we will continue to do expand the pilot pipeline in our region but we are excited to add new pilots in other counties in the state.