Tuesday, 15 February 2022 16:30

Croptide - getting smarter with water

Written by  Sophie Preece
A prototype Croptide sensor. A prototype Croptide sensor.

A stem-to-cloud tool that transmits plant water health to a grower's phone is "the way of the future", says a viticulturist trialling the water-saving technology.

"If we can automate the process and have information coming directly from the vines themselves, that will lead to better management decisions in the future," says Cloudy Bay's John Flanagan, part of a pilot project with agritech startup Croptide.

Croptide was co-founded by Hamish Penny in February 2021 to help combat the impact of changing climate patterns on agriculture, which accounts for more than 70 percent of global water withdrawals. It aims to improve water use efficiency for fruit and wine producers by 30 to 50 percent by giving growers information on plant water potential - a measure of how hard leaves have to pull to extract moisture from the soil - so they can irrigate only when it is apparent the vine is working too hard.

"Many regions around the world are facing dire water scarcity and growers are expressing the need for a quick and reliable method of gathering the critical data needed around water use and plant health," says Hamish. "If every grower knows the precise amount of water needed for every plant, then they can make significant water efficiency gains to tackle global water scarcity and feed the planet."

The sensors lean on learnings from a three year trial funded by New Zealand Winegrowers and Bragato Research Institute, conducted by Thoughtful Viticulture's Mark Krasnow, using pressure chambers to inform irrigation decisions. Across the four Marlborough vineyards trialled, water savings ranged from 137,000 to 666,000 litres per hectare.

"That was the starting point for us," says Hamish. "The growers we are talking to were saying 'we have seen that research but don't have the labour to unlock those benefits with the pressure chamber." The Croptide crew focussed on automating the technology, in a way that was scalable and usable, to provide real time accurate plant and water potential to growers within seconds.

Hamish and co-founder Finn Brown - both studying engineering at Massey University - have sustainability and circular food production at the core of their operating model, "as we strive to make a positive impact on people, the planet and fruit growers," says Hamish.

But quality is also a factor, says John, noting that Cloudy Bay's focus on irrigation management is motivated by environmental gains, but also on supporting a certain level of stress in the plant, to ensure smaller berries and vine balance. "We don't irrigate based on how much water is available in our consent or how much time we have available in the day or night. Our strategy is very much based on what the plant needs."

While some stress is desirable, it's important to know when there's a risk of catastrophe, making tools like Croptide invaluable. Cloudy Bay has utilised soil moisture monitors and the relatively new technology of stem water potential pressure chambers in recent years, comparing the information gleaned from both to influence water management decisions.

With the Croptide prototypes in place, data will be collected from all three tools and compared, with an assistant viticulturist dedicated to irrigation management and two technical assistants employed over summer to collect readings.

Other global businesses are also trialling the technology, with T&G Global, Indevin, Pernod Ricard Winemakers, Zespri, and another large kiwifruit grower - the Ngai Tukairangi Trust - involved in summer pilots in Marlborough, Hawke's Bay and the Bay of Plenty.

Pernod Ricard's Viticulture Transformation Manager David Allen says minimising water use is an important part of the company's sustainability goals. "Technology like Croptide provides an opportunity for us to directly measure the water our vines truly need. We are pleased to see the industry working together to take shared responsibility for water use and address sustainability challenges and effect lasting change."

Hamish says Croptide is planning to utilise the global connection of its partners to do trials in the northern hemisphere this year, in order to have two seasons per year for developing the technology. "This helps with our main focus of developing a sensor that can be delivered at a fairly low cost, and is simple enough to be installed by the grower, rather than a technician."

Croptide has raised $1 million in a pre-seed funding round led by Icehouse Ventures with support from Sir Stephen Tindall's K1W1 and Mafsen Group. Icehouse Ventures Chief Executive Robbie Paul says farming in the future needs to be more sustainable, "and we believe startups like Croptide will enable this".

Mark Krasnow says water potential is tried and true technology, but it is labour intensive. "An automated way to gather the same information, or something that correlates well to it, would be a real benefit to everyone."

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