Drought whets appetites for automated irrigationWATSONVILLE, Calif. — As California growers review their water conservation options in the midst of the state’s drought, some are considering automated irrigation.

But Russel Maridon, founder of Watsonville-based AgRite Automated Systems, found much of the early interest in his version of the technology came from growers seeking labor savings.

“Three years ago, it felt like I invented a machine that saves something nobody wants,” he said. “People realized there were water savings, but that wasn’t a big enough driver to implement it. The drought is what pushed this to the forefront.”

The AgRite system is in use, among other places, at Maridon’s 12.5-acre Watsonville ranch, where tenant Reiter Berry Farms — a Driscoll’s operation — grows Maravilla variety organic raspberries.

“Last year on this ranch, we used 4.6 million gallons of water,” he said. “It works out to 1.15 acre feet per planted acre during a planted season.”

Some AgRite customers report higher numbers but remain within a range of 30% to 40% water savings, Maridon said.

Computer monitoring of irrigation is not new. AgRite hopes to distinguish itself on amount of available information and ability to fine tune the process.

“The biggest thing that makes us different is the amount of control,” he said.

The technology turns valves on and off, starts the pump, flushes the system and mixes fertilizer. E-mail alerts are available for various functions, including the need to refill tanks or troubleshoot a part.

Data is saved and can be pasted into spreadsheet software for reports.

On the computer screen, an overview page allows operators to choose set points, time of day and other controls for irrigation events. Manual controls remain available.

The AgRite system costs about $25,000, which includes a control panel and four valves — two masters, two slaves — plus a sensor group. The panel is expandable up to 16 valves. Additional sensor groups — for ranches with multiple crops or soil profiles — are about $1,500 each. A sensor group includes four sensors and a wireless transmission node. Transmission can be done via radio or cell modem.

Maridon’s ranch runs on one sensor group.