BY BAY STEPHENS
Tim Wallace, a potato farmer in Washington’s Skagit Valley, awoke in the heart of a moonlit summer night with a premonition—something was amiss. He climbed out of bed and went out to the truck. Mt. Baker and South Twin tow- ered over the farmland bordering ocean inlets as the truck’s headlights beamed across the fields. Tim drove to an irrigation reel he’d set to run through the night. He pulled the truck to a stop, stepped out and stared.
Where a field should have been, a lake glistened. At some point in the night, a pipe had burst, spewing 300 gallons per minute and flooding at least 10 acres. The mishap meant thousands of dollars of lost crops and—perhaps most heavily weighing on Tim’s mind as he waded through the lake to shut off the pump—the entire next day cleaning up the mess.
Since the advent of modern farm irrigation systems in the 1970s and ’80s, failed pipes and lost crops have dogged farmers in the developed world. The only solution was to watch reels like a hawk, visiting each by truck throughout the day.
An irrigation reel is essentially a giant moving sprinkler connected to the end of a spool of hose. Farmers use tractors to pull the sprinklers and hose out from the spool to the far end of a field, then turn on the water pumps as well as the reels, which slowly retract over several hours, watering a “run” of crops without the farmer’s supervision.
But it doesn’t always work that way. Sometimes the reel comes in dry, meaning the pump shut off before it finished retracting, leaving crops unwatered. In other cases, the timer for the pump mismatches the timing of the reel, so the sprinkler inundates the last stretch of a run. And in the worst scenarios, the reel stops in the middle of a run, the pump still running, and completely floods the crop. In any case, the farmer ends up wasting time, effort and fuel.
But a better way now exists. A new technology called FarmHQ developed by Tim’s own sons, David and Connor, signals a potentially crucial shift in how farmers manage their irrigation systems, saving time, stress and untold amounts of water.
David, 34, and Connor, 31, have brought irrigation control to the touch of a finger through a surprisingly simple solution. FarmHQ allows farmers to monitor and control their irrigation systems from afar via an app, track water usage and rest assured that a malfunctioning pump or reel will shut off automatically, alerting the farmer.
“FarmHQ is really our attempt to add the smallest amount of technology onto one of these [irrigation] devices that allows a farmer to have all that came with the internet boom,” Connor said.
The module is no bigger than an old brick cell phone. Once mounted and hooked up to a reel or pump, FarmHQ makes decades-old infrastructure part of a state-of-the-art, cloud-based monitoring and control system. FarmHQ grants the farmer the ability to automate irrigation in myriad ways, to “pair” equipment and to set timers. All this, with no need to fork out another $50,000 for a new reel.
FarmHQ, by comparison, costs $1,200 up front for the hardware, with an annual fee between $180 and $360 per reel.
The mission of CODA Farm Technologies, the formal name of David and Connor’s business, is to save water, protect crops and make farmers’ lives easier. According to the brothers, the farmers already using FarmHQ remark on the immense peace of mind the technology provides.
“Everything is right there at your fingertips,” said Andrew Albert, a hay farmer in Arlington, Washington, using FarmHQ. “I can look at my phone six times a day instead of doing six field drive-bys.”
Many farmers relish checking the status of their reels from bed in the morning, Connor said. And the technology has made a night-and-day difference in their own father’s work. Installed on all 13 of the Wallace farm’s reels, FarmHQ allows Tim to check the status of each reel without needing to drive out in person.
“Up until I had FarmHQ, I spent my whole summer working on irrigation,” Tim said. “These last two summers, I haven’t touched an irrigation pipe.” Rather than babysitting his irrigation all day and night, Tom now dispatches his crew to any reel or pump that his phone tells him isn’t functioning. “It gives you the confidence that things are working.”
He said he sleeps a lot better, too.
Aside from stress reduction and better sleep for farmers, the water savings could be the greatest promise of this technology. Against the backdrop of a warming global climate, wise water management in agriculture is essential.
“Water is becoming an incredibly scarce resource and we need to use it much more judiciously,” David said. “The biggest place we can make an impact is on farms.”
Farms account for 70 percent of freshwater consumption worldwide, according to the World Bank. And to feed a growing population, some estimates suggest agricultural production must expand 70 percent by 2050. Yet, simultaneously, the World Bank states that in many scenarios, 25-40 percent of water must be reallocated away from agriculture to higher productivity activities, thus leaving farmers with the tall task of creating more food with less water.
“I think that water scarcity is going to force huge changes to the entire food supply chain and, unfortunately, farmers are among the first to be confronted with this reality in areas with persistent drought,” David said.
The decreasing availability of water in the Colorado River—along with overallocation of the river in the 1920s—has put all who rely on “the lifeline of the West” in a tight spot. Farmers who rely on the embattled river for irrigation can’t afford flooding fields due to burst pipes. Neither can anyone else depending on the Colorado.
“If you can make a substantial impact in water consumption, you can pretty dramatically change how much water we have access to across the world,” David said. CODA estimates that a FarmHQ system installed on a single irrigation reel saves, on average, around 500,000 gallons of water over the course of a season. That’s about an 8 percent reduction of water use.
An analysis conducted internally found that just having the AutoStop feature enabled on FarmHQ-equipped reels saves 120,000 gallons of water per system in an average season.
While FarmHQ gives farmers an edge in water efficiency, David doesn’t pretend it’s a silver bullet for those who need to make drastic cuts to their water use. Rather, “automation systems like FarmHQ should be looked at as a key piece of a comprehensive strategy for water efficiency on farms,” David said.
It’s safe to say that CODA Farm Technologies and FarmHQ wouldn’t exist without the Wallace farm and its encompassing role in the Wallace brothers’ lives.
In the early 1900s, the first Wallaces emigrated from Northern Ireland to the Skagit Valley, which possessed a climate similar to their homeland. David and Connor represent the fourth generation to live on the farm.
On account of living far apart from neighbors, the many farmers in Skagit Valley didn’t exactly constitute a cohesive community, according to David. For much of their upbringing, social life consisted of homeschool with their mother, interactions around the farm with their grandparents, uncles, cousins, and, of course, a lot of time spent with each other. As they put it, they made their own fun.
The pair wrestled in freshly tilled dirt outside the house and built jumps for bicycles and their Honda 50 dirt bikes. They used a dike near the Samish River as a motocross jump, launching off it until the erosion threatened to let the river back into their fields. They also built countless computers with their cousin, Luke.
“When you grow up in the middle of a 100-acre field with no neighbors around, you’re definitely going to have a different experience than a kid who grows up in a tightly knit suburban community,” David said.
But the farm and their father’s role in it held endless fascination for the two.
“We were constantly around awesome things like big tractors, large machinery, and my dad and grandparents had these cool blue coveralls,” David said. “I just wanted to be involved in that.”
“Up until I had FarmHQ, I spent my whole summer working on irrigation. These last two summers, I haven’t touched an irrigation pipe.” – Tim Wallace
The brothers participated as soon as they possibly could, doing the punishing work of picking berries as 10-year-olds, then learning to drive the tractor at 12. The two learned how to operate the multivator that attached to the tractor to rototill between rows of potatoes, how to “ted” hay so it dried after being cut, and how to buck hay bales into a neat stack for storage or transport. Both loved the sense of fulfillment that came with contributing to the family enterprise.
But they also needed education, which fell more or less to their mother, Beth. Trained as an anthropologist, and faced with the prospect of a far more traditional role than she ever imagined for herself, Beth decided to make her family her tribe of study. And what better experiment than the education of her two children?
The concept of “unschooling” or “world schooling” intrigued Beth, who described the approach as “the idea that one didn’t need to be in school to be educated.”
Beth tinkered with different approaches to educating David and Connor, some of which she admits worked better than others. At the least, she ensured they grasped core skills like math, science, writing and critical thinking. But she also viewed everyday living—such as cooking meals, or interacting with adults on the farm—as part of their education.
“Typically, we only spent two hours a day sitting at a table doing formal schoolwork, which left a lot of time, a lot of freedom, for them to work on whatever they were working on at the time,” Beth said.
For the brothers, learning served as a means to solving problems and sating their curiosity. For instance, David used the trigonometric functions of sine, cosine and tangent to help him build skateboard ramps. Connor taught himself to write before his mom got the chance so he could record the moves necessary to beat the videogame Zelda.
Both brothers recognize the key role their mom played in fostering their curiosity and maintaining high expectations.
“Raising two kids in the middle of a field and making the decision to homeschool them is very brave,” David said. “My hat is off to her for consistently getting us to do our homework.”
Thanks to their self-directed education, they developed an intrinsic love for problem solving and overcoming challenges, which they carried through public school when they enrolled in ninth grade for David and sixth grade for Connor.
After high school, the brothers’ passion for challenge led them into advanced technical degrees. David earned a degree in chemistry from Whitman College, followed by a PhD in solid-state chemistry from Johns Hopkins University. Connor studied physics at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, before going on to work as a full-stack software engineer at multiple tech companies along the West Coast.
After taking one of the few data science bootcamps available at the time, David landed a job as a senior data scientist in Seattle at Amazon.com in 2016, where he remained full-time until the farm pulled him back.
The Road to Farm Technopreneurship
While both David and Connor had worked summers throughout college at the farm, their professional careers afforded little time to lend a hand in the fields. After two years at Amazon, David’s work began to feel short on meaning, so in the fall of 2018, he dropped to a 20-percent schedule and fell right back into farm work alongside his dad and uncles.
While farm work held its own satisfaction, David craved a problem he could solve with a bit of software and electronics. He asked his dad and uncle what would be most helpful.
“If you could find a way to shut off the water when a reel is done running, that would save crop damage and time,” they told him.
David assumed he could just buy a product already on the market, but couldn’t find anything.
“I was calling retailers who sell hose reels, and they were like, ‘If you find something good, let us know,’” David said.
Despite no background in electrical engineering, he threw together 10 bulky prototypes equipped with only one sensor that detected when a reel stopped moving and sent a signal to the water pump to shut it down before a field was doused to death. Even this basic rendition proved invaluable to the Wallace operation.
David wondered if other farmers might find the device useful. To gauge interest, he presented the idea at a local potato farmers workshop, offering to install the sensors at cost for anyone interested. Six farmers raised their hands; he had 48 devices to build.
“That’s when we were like, ‘Dang, we’re going to have to actually do this now,’” David said.
While Connor and a few of their friends had been involved on a hobby basis, David needed more help. Serendipitously, the company where Connor had been developing autonomous trucking software was acquired by Nuro, the autonomous delivery company, giving him a convenient step-off point to join David. And more help was coming.
“Our friends wouldn’t stop bugging us about joining in,” Connor laughed. Hence, CODA had its first two hires.
They redesigned FarmHQ to be more elegant, compact, durable and user friendly, then did a second pilot release. Rave reviews returned. FarmHQ was a game changer for farmers in the pilot. The brothers sought venture capital funding.
Incorporated in March 2020—and fully remote from Day 1 on account of the pandemic—CODA Farm Technologies continues to grow as more farmers catch wind of FarmHQ.
CODA’s core of family and friends means strong bonds of trust, especially between the brothers.
“[Connor] as a cofounder is really the one person I can talk to about any aspect of the business … without worry that that might change his perception of how successful we might be,” David said. “He’s truly in it with me 100 percent.”
Connor echoes the sentiment, estimating the two of them talk via phone for a half hour each day.
For two kids who loved computers and always wanted to help their dad on the farm, CODA and FarmHQ is the manifestation of a long-held, yet unarticulated, dream. Shaped by the farm itself, and empowered by their mother’s presence throughout childhood, Connor and David have put their own unique spin on “helping out on the farm.”
Bay Stephens is a former Outlaw staff writer and editor. He currently lives in Colorado where he works as a ski patroller for Beaver Creek Ski Resort.