Rain has never been a reliable source of water for agriculture. In ancient China, farmers irrigated their fields by burying water-filled unglazed clay pots among their crops. Since then, the most significant advance in modern agriculture is the drip-irrigation system invented in Israel by Simcha Blass and his son Yeshayahu in 1959.

Drip irrigation increases crop yield, quality and consistency, while using less water per unit of land — benefiting farmers, consumers and the planet.

This year, Netafim – the multinational company founded at Kibbutz Hatzerim in 1965 to commercialize Blass’s technology – is celebrating its 50th anniversary at a time when the fertile field of “precision agriculture” offers ever more efficient ways to irrigate crops as well as monitor and control the process.

Netafim has 28 subsidiaries, 16 manufacturing plants and more than 4,000 employees worldwide delivering its technologies to two million customers in 110 countries. Its Indian subsidiary is now involved in the world’s largest integrated micro-irrigation project, and on July 21 the company signed a $17 million agreement with Vingroup, Vietnam’s largest publicly-traded real estate operator, to supply greenhouse structures, drip products, climate control systems, growing platforms, know-how and agronomic and support services for one of Southeast Asia’s largest greenhouse projects.

Grape farmer Jim Stollberg installed drip “because it’s really the leading way to irrigate in wine grapes in California." Photo courtesy of Netafim
Grape farmer Jim Stollberg installed drip “because it’s really the leading way to irrigate in wine grapes in California.” Photo courtesy of Netafim

 Last year, Netafim introduced its uManage platform that sends continuous data between the irrigation controller and sensors in the field and the monitoring station in the office.

This year, Netafim launched Aries, its next-generation low-flow irrigation drippers designed to boost yields under harsh water conditions. Soon it will release Orion drippers, set to break even greater barriers in clogging resistance, durability and operational efficiency.

“With the world population expected to grow rapidly over the next few decades, there is a need to significantly increase food production,” said Netafim CEO Ran Maidan. “Our next-generation low-flow drippers are part of the global effort to fight food scarcity. Improving crop yields regardless of water quality while lowering dependence on water and other resources, the new line is helping us revolutionize irrigation, shape the future of agriculture, and make the world a more sustainable place.”

Netafim isn’t the only Israeli business making strides in smart irrigation. ISRAEL21c takes a look at five other companies using sophisticated technology to fine-tune irrigation and “fertigation” (fertilization and irrigation) techniques in the face of widespread water scarcity.

CropX generates daily irrigation maps and automatically applies the right amount of water to different parts of the same field, resulting in lower water and energy usage. Farmers manage irrigation by downloading the CropX mobile app and placing three wireless sensors in the ground. They can then make real-time adjustments via smartphone across multiple farms and fields.

CropX CEO Isaac Bentwich in the field. Photo courtesy of CropX
CropX CEO Isaac Bentwich in the field. Photo courtesy of CropX

The Tel Aviv- and San Francisco-based company closed a $9 million financing round in June, led by US-based Finistere Ventures and Innovation Endeavors along with Israel’s GreenSoil Investments, with participation of the Jerusalem-based OurCrowd crowdfunded equity platform.

CropX CEO Isaac Bentwich tells ISRAEL21c that the uniqueness of CropX “is in its ability to apply different amounts of water to different parts of the same field. Land is not uniform (just like our bodies are different from each other), and so applying uniform irrigation is actually overwatering parts of a field while under watering other parts. CropX optimizes and automates this process so farmers can grow more while using less water.”

GreenSoil’s Gideon Soesman emphasizes that ease of use is the critical factor in the success of any new technology for farmers.

“Israel companies have the ability to be leaders, but the solutions must be easily implementable and usable by the farmer. Once that happens, I think we’ll see more of this take off.”

The CropX device at work in the fields. Photo courtesy of CropX
The CropX device at work in the fields. Photo courtesy of CropX

Phytech at Kibbutz Yad Mordechai developed its PlantBeat system with sensors to keep tabs on growth, soil moisture and micro-climate for any irrigated plot in orchards, fields or greenhouses. The patented mobile platform is supported by cloud-based servers and web-based software applications so that growers receive and share a constant, real-time stream of data and recommendations for optimum irrigation decisions.

In June, Phytech entered into a commercial collaboration with Adama Agricultural Solutions, the leading global off-patent provider of crop protection solutions, to advance the worldwide commercialization of PlantBeat. Pilot projects have started in the United States and Brazil, with more expected to follow soon.

PlantBeat keeps tabs on growth, moisture and micro-climate. Photo courtesy of Phytech
PlantBeat keeps tabs on growth, moisture and micro-climate. Photo courtesy of Phytech

Saturas, part of the Trendlines Agtech incubator in Misgav, is developing a sensor-based precision irrigation system based on stem water potential (SWP), the most accurate measurement of water status in plants.

Embedding tiny sensors in the trunks of fruit trees provides for accurate and continuous SWP measurement. According to CEO Anat Halgoa Solomon, the system could save farmers between 15 and 20 percent on water usage. Field tests are now being conducted on avocado, mango, citrus and peach trees in Israel.

Trendlines Agtech CEO Nitza Kardish says precision irrigation saves water and results in fruits and vegetables with consistent taste and shape profiles most appealing to consumers. “I see a lot of very innovative ideas among Israeli companies for sensors, software and hardware. But in order to expand the number of farmers using smart irrigation — now maybe just 10% worldwide – systems have to be very simple for the user no matter how sophisticated the technology is,” she tells ISRAEL21c.

AutoAgronom, purchased in 2014 by Chinese conglomerate Shenyang Yuanda Enterprise Group for $20 million, pioneered Root Sense to examine a variety of soil and weather conditions around the roots. After analyzing sensor data algorithmically, the system’s controller provides automatic fertigation customized to each crop.

“By tailoring our solution, we have been able to show tremendous traction with over 70 types of crops, significantly increasing crop yields while reducing the use of water up to 50% and fertilizers by 70%,” AutoAgronom’s Osher Perry told ISRAEL21c last year, when the company took first place in the 2014 Cleantech Open Global Ideas, a global search for the most promising clean-technology ideas held annually in conjunction with Global Entrepreneurship Week.

EcoFer Fertigation Technologies, a portfolio startup of GreenSoil Investments, makes an automated system that measures, dissolves and converts soluble fertilizers into a liquid solution instantly and as required. Using a touch screen, the grower has full flexibility to control and change the fertilizers injected into the irrigation system.