Zach Sheely is the fourth generation of his family to farm — and he admits that can be a daunting legacy.

His mother’s grandfather was a farmer-rancher, and 29-year-old Zach grew up in Lemoore, Calif., watching his father farm.

“I have always looked to Dad as a role model and have always had an interest in farming,” he says. “But, I’ve also been somewhat intimidated by him because he is so good at what he does,” said the 29-year-old.

The name Sheely is well-respected in both California and Arizona agriculture. His father, Ted, is a former Cotton Foundation/Farm Press High Cotton Award winner who has headed numerous agricultural organizations. Arizona Cotton Growers Association established an association Director of the Year award in honor of his late grandfather, Joe Sheely. Both his father and grandfather served as chairmen of Cotton Incorporated.

He worked summers on the farm while attending Westmont College at Santa Barbara pursuing a degree in biology. He also spent a summer working for the National Weather Service and was an intern on the USDA/NASA Ag 20/20 project, which was conducted largely on the family’s 10,000-acre farm.

The project studied the integration of remote sensing-based tools in precision agricultural management systems to increase production and efficiency and to improve job quality. He worked primarily on the development of variable rate Pix technology.

Although Ted Sheely has long embraced technology and computers on the farm, Zach’s generation, which grew up in the digital age, has made it more a function of lifestyle.

“When I became aware that my interest in computers could help on the farm, I became excited about being able to contribute,” says Zach.

“I wanted to use computer technology to make it easier for Dad and other farmers to farm. Farmers have so much to deal with, with regulations and other matters, and I wanted to help.”

 

Fastest-adopted technology

California agriculture long ago melded computers and farming/ranching, but Zach is taking it to a far more intuitive level, thanks to the touch screen technology of the Apple iPhone and iPad.

The New York Times predicts iPads and copycat tablet computers will be the fastest-adopted technology in the history of digital devices. Numbers back that up — iPad sales are projected to reach 28 million this year, and by 2012 more than 63 million.

There are an estimated 80,000 applications (“apps”) currently available, and more than 3 billion have been downloaded to
iPhone and iPads. More than 70,000 of those are games, books and entertainment; only about 8,000 are classified as “utilities.”

Agriculture is climbing aboard this digital informational bullet train, and Zach believes this is only the beginning of an agricultural apps explosion. He is one of those out front in the evolution, coupling the family farm, Az-Cal Management, and his passion for the digital information age.

With a computer programmer, an aerial imagery provider and an irrigation management company, he is developing a pictorial iPad and iPhone app that will not only provide information about what is happening on a farm and what needs to be done, but will connect a farm’s management team on a real-time basis.

It is called SiteToDo and will be available in May through Altamont Technologies LLC, Farmington, Calif. An amazingly simple spatial to-do application, Altamont says it will allow farmers to geo-tag tasks on a map on touch-screen iPads and
iPhones. Tasks can easily be reviewed, created and changed.

“We’ve already had many farmers agree to use the program and we will roll it out in May,” says Sheely.

“Many computers used in agriculture today aren’t very user friendly; they aren’t exactly intuitive.”

No learning curve

The Apple platform isn’t the only tablet computer on the market, but Sheely developed the SiteToDo app for Apple because it is a “stable operating system and it is very convenient to download an app wherever you are. And there is no learning curve for anyone picking up the Apple platform.”

He understands well that farmers want to spend as little time as possible in an office on a computer — they want to be in the field and have simple, instant access to information on the go.

Tom Horsley, an Altamont, Calif., walnut grower as well as a computer programmer, connected with the Sheelys through Matt Angel of SureHarvest, an irrigation management and monitoring company.

Horsley has worked with the AgNotes program and has worked with John Deere on its computer offerings.

Horsley and Sheely met last November and began working on a demo app that would download aerial imagery straight from a provider or a farm server to an
iPhone or iPad.

They developed a simple menu for geo tasking for agriculture that could be easily updated with user-created new features without the services of a computer programmer.

SiteToDo comes with a limited vocabulary task menu, and as the user creates his own tasks on screen — fix a stake, repair a leak, tree limb down, soil sample, etc. — they are automatically added to the menu.

Geoadvantage, the aerial imagery provider for the SiteToDo project, provides aerial imagery worldwide and flies about 30,000 acres a year in California. They believe the Apple app Sheely and Horsley are developing is a way to expand their customer base in California.

Sheely says Geoadvantage, in meetings with growers and consultants, also saw the potential of the iPad technology.

“They asked one group how many had iPhones, and 15 percent did. Another 15 percent had Androids and 10 percent had BlackBerrys. The other 60 percent said they were anticipating buying an iPhone or iPad or something similar to the Apple platform within the next year.

That is a good indication, he believes, of how demand for table computer apps like SiteToDo will grow.

Ted Sheely says that although Ag 20/20 provided major advancements in precision agriculture, such as GPS-guided tractors, field aerial mapping and grid soil sampling coupled with variable rate technology, it really captured only the “low hanging fruit.”

Zach Sheely is one of the young lions in agriculture taking precisions agriculture to the next, more useful level.

Pulse drip irrigation

He is working at Az-Cal on the adoption of pulse drip irrigation management. This allows for shorter water sets, with more oxygen getting to plant roots. It is not necessarily aimed at saving water — drip is already accomplishing that through improved water efficiency. Rather, pulse irrigation benefits plant growth and development by not waterlogging roots with long irrigation sets.

“I would say 80 percent of our irrigation on pistachios is right on and another 5 percent is OK,” Zach says. “However, 5 percent of the trees are smaller than the rest and seem to be getting too much water, either from over-irrigating or leaking emitters after the system is turned off.”

 These impaired trees are not in nice, neat rows or blocks, but in small clusters that need to be identified quickly and the overwatering situation corrected.

With SiteToDo, aerial imagery and GPS on the iPad or iPhone, Sheely can go directly to affected trees — no guessing.

“We brainstormed about how we could solve the overwatering problem once we identified the trees. It was obvious the trees weren’t using the water that was being applied.”

After identifying overwatered trees, Sheely shut off water to 25 percent of the eight inline emitters per tree by taping them off with a self-adhesive red tape.

Is it worth the effort to focus on 5 percent of trees?

It obviously improves the production of individual trees, he says, and makes the field as uniform as is practical, but one of the biggest reasons to fix a relatively small number of trees is for harvesting efficiency.

With the pulse system, water doesn’t reach the soil surface. “Looking at the ground, it’s so dry you wouldn’t think it was being irrigated, but where too much water is being applied, the surface gets wet. On the West Side of the San Joaquin, that means harvesting machinery gets stuck, and that slows harvest.” With drip, farmers will irrigate up until the day harvest begins.

The iPad imagery also helps Sheely instantly identify good areas of the field.

Processing tomato harvest is all about timing to meet cannery delivery schedules, and SiteToDo can help that along, he says.

“For example, if an aerial image identifies a hot spot in a tomato field that needs to be harvested first, the harvest manager can quickly identify that area on aerial imagery on the iPad and show the harvest foreman exactly where he wants the harvest to start.”

Identifying soil sampling sites

SiteToDo also makes it simple to identify soil sampling sites within a field.

“When I identify a soil sampling site, everyone in management here on the farm can see exactly where that is happening in the field on their iPad or iPhone. The cool thing is that you can share what you put into these devices with everyone.”

Sheely is also working to add instant irrigation system blueprints to the app, along with instantaneous irrigation well monitoring.

“We have these $1 million dollar holes in the ground, and we want real-time monitoring of well flows, pressure and pump performance. If a pump is heating up, for example, you need to know it immediately so you can take care of it.”

The app can also track moving targets with GPS. “You can see where everyone is on the farm. If you want someone to meet you at a particular spot, each can see on the screen where the other is located and then go directly to the meeting spot.”

And everything a SiteToDo user can do on the farm, he can and also do remotely off the farm — it’s as simple as using a telephone.

An iPad2 starts at $500, has 10 hours of battery life, and can be plugged into a vehicle’s lighter socket to keep the battery fully charged. The highest capacity unit sells for about $800; with accessories like a case and keyboard, the total can run $1,000. A comparably capable laptop can cost $2,000 or more. With a rubberized case, the iPad is durable and sealed well to keep out dust and water.

 

Making job easier

“We aren’t taking the place of the farmer’s brain,” Sheely says. “We just want to make it easier for him to do his job.

“Dad knows what’s going on — he started farming when he was 16 and has been working this farm since the 1970s, before buying it in the 1980s. Maybe this technology will allow him to more easily tweak what’s going on. It will definitely allow me and others on our farm management team to learn what he knows faster.”

“I’m not a computer programmer, but I’ve acquired a good understanding of how things work from watching Dad farm and from my work with NASA on Ag 20/20. Hopefully, this app will help farmers more easily document what’s going on in their operations.”

Sheely also believes technology will attract more young people into farming. “They feel comfortable with tablet computer technology.”

SiteToDo will be marketed on a per month subscription basis, with fees based on the size of the operation and the number of iPhones and/or iPads connected to individual servers.

Sheely’s enthusiasm for his contribution to agriculture is obvious, as is his love of agriculture.

Educating about farming

“Agriculture gets a bad rap in the media,” he says. “Maybe if we can tell how we’re using technology that the public understands, it could help us educate them about farming.”

He has been interviewed on National Public Radio about the family’s farm, and has publicly defended agriculture to not-so-friendly audiences.

“Zach talks to people who scare me,” says his father.

Zach has an unusual ability to communicate through another talent — he is also an opera singer.

A tenor who has pursued a serious musical career since he was 16, he has appeared in a variety of roles, including Rodolfo in Puccini’s La Boheme, Duke in Rigoletto, Alfredo in La Traviata, Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly, Rinuccio in Gianni Schicchi, Arturo Buklaw in Lucia di Lammermoor, the Conductor in Pasatieri’s La Divina, Brack Weaver in Down in the Valley, the Witch in Hansel and Gretel, Hermes in Victor Kioulaphides’s The Silver Swan, and Kaspar in Amahl and the Night Visitors. He made his international debut in 2006 in Hanzhou, China, as Don Jose and Remendado in Carmen.

The week after being interviewed for this article, he had a major competition in Los Angeles.

“My music career opens other doors to allow me to tell agriculture’s story. There aren’t too many opera singers who are farmers,” he laughs.

“I enjoy doing both, but I don’t want to give up my spot on the farm. I really enjoy making this computer and technology work for people like my father.”