Water World

BY KIM MOORE

Fred Ziari aims to feed the global population.

Fred Ziari aims to feed the global population.

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BY KIM MOORE | PHOTOS BY JASON E. KAPLAN

September is harvest time in Eastern Oregon. On one side of a dirt road lies a lush green field of carrots, ready for picking. A sophisticated, large sprinkler system, which moves on wheels, keeps the field well watered. The fertile ground contrasts with the other side of the dirt track, where there is a low sand bank, and beyond that a dusty expanse of scrubland dotted with tumbleweed.

The dry land is a reminder that this farming region is in the high desert. On average, 12 inches of rain a year falls in this area of the Columbia Basin in the north-central and northeastern part of the state. Portland, by contrast, receives on average about 40 inches of precipitation annually.

What has helped this arid area become one of the most productive agricultural regions in the country and an important hub for food exports are water conservation irrigation technologies pioneered by Fred Ziari, president of Hermiston-based engineering firm IRZ Consulting.

Ziari has been involved in agricultural engineering for the past 34 years. As global demand for food soars, demand for his services has risen accordingly. Growing more food through state-of-the-art irrigation systems is the most efficient way of feeding the explosion in population growth, argues Ziari. From his outpost in the high desert, this mild-mannered, amicable agricultural engineer is teaching the world to do just that. “People look at this area as the best irrigated farming on the planet,” he says.

The combination of irrigation and a sunny climate is a boon for Oregon’s economy. Irrigated farms produce 77% of the total value of the state’s harvested crops, equivalent to $3.38 billion in agricultural production for 2010.

The majority of farms employ center-pivot irrigation, a technology that farmers in this region have used since the 1970s. The system uses motorized towers to move sprinklers around a central point to water fields. Ziari refined the technology to make it more efficient by pioneering the use of low-hanging sprinklers that reduce water and energy use while ensuring crops are irrigated evenly.

“Fred has done amazing things for conserving water in the Columbia Basin,” says Philip Hamm, director of OSU’s Hermiston Agricultural Research & Extension Center. “Everything is based on the kind of things he did.”

1114profile IMG 9115 333pxZiari, 61, grew up in a farming community in Mazandaran Province, Iran, by the Caspian Sea. As a boy, he became interested in agricultural engineering through his father, who grew 25 different crops and developed one of the first irrigation systems in the province 50 years ago. Ziari came to the U.S. at age 18 to study agricultural engineering at Texas A&M University. After working three years as a faculty member at Washington State University, he moved to Hermiston in 1982 and founded IRZ Consulting two years later.

Three years ago, IRZ Consulting was bought by Lindsay Corporation of Nebraska, a maker of irrigation equipment. The acquisition gave IRZ Consulting an injection of capital that Ziari has used to grow his firm globally. The company has opened offices in several countries and has projects in Russia, China, Africa and Brazil, as well as all over the U.S. Ziari has traveled to 25 countries in the past two years alone to promote his irrigation technology.

He also regularly hosts farmers from around the world at his Hermiston office. In September Ziari gave a tour to 20 farmers from Brazil; the week before, 10 farmers from Australia visited; before that, guests from Dubai and Africa came to learn more about the irrigation technology. “The demand for the technology is at an all-time high,” Ziari says.

So is demand for Oregon food exports. Almost 85% of the food grown in the Hermiston region is exported to other countries; exports have increased by 80% in the past five years. Much of this demand is coming from the growing middle class in countries such as China, India and the Middle East. “People in these countries are getting richer and want higher-quality food that is grown in the Pacific Northwest,” says Ziari.

Every year the global population also grows by approximately 90 million people, representing about one-third of the U.S. population. Feeding this expanding population will require a 70% increase in the current rate of food production and is the “greatest challenge for mankind,” Ziari says.

Meeting that challenge may require more water. Despite Ziari’s focus on advancements in conservation technology, he is, ironically, also at odds with environmentalists over his support for using more water from the Columbia River for irrigation. Farms in Eastern Oregon take 400,000 to 450,000 acre feet (one acre-foot equals 325,000 gallons) of water out of the Columbia River annually to irrigate their fields.

That’s a little less than 1% of the entire volume of water in the Columbia River, Ziari points out. Along with the rest of the farming community, Ziari would like farms to be able to take another 50,000 to 100,000 acre-feet of water from the Columbia over 10 years. “We think this is a good goal,” he says.

1114profile IMG 9008 500pxJoe Whitworth, president of The Freshwater Trust, a Portland-based nonprofit, disagrees. Taking extra water out of the Columbia could harm endangered salmon, he says. “From an environmental perspective, this is a salmon super highway. All salmon use the Columbia River. Many are listed as needing protection.” Whitworth says he would support taking extra water out of the Columbia River as long as water is replaced in smaller tributaries where salmon spawn.

As the battle between farmers and environmental groups continues, Ziari is working on the next generation of irrigation technologies. Today wireless technologies are the linchpin of his work. His irrigation systems use sensors that measure the amount of moisture in the soil. These sensors, which run on solar panels, send detailed crop data via satellites to IRZ Consulting’s scientists and engineers, who can use the data to advise farmers whether they need to increase or decrease the amount of water they put on their fields.

Farmers now have the capability of receiving real-time data on their smart phones. But many farms do not have adequate cell phone coverage to receive the data. Ziari is working to develop wireless cloud technology to bring wireless to farms without coverage.

Other issues will be how to manage big data — data sets so large and complex that the data become difficult to analyze, capture, search, share and store — and ensure that all irrigation devices can communicate with each other on a common broadband platform. Currently, there is no common standard for devices, such as sensors, to communicate with each other.

As Ziari strives to improve his technology to enable farmers to grow and produce food sustainably for the global market, he says he has reached a point in his career where he feels most fulfilled. He is more convinced than ever that Oregon can be a global leader in food production and conserve natural resources at the same time. “After traveling around the world, I see this region is as good as any place in sustainable agriculture. It works here." 

Kim Moore

Kim Moore is the editor for Oregon Business magazine.

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