Reduce water consumption in urban agriculture in arid climates

Progress report for FW20-359

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2020: $20,000.00
Projected End Date: 04/30/2022
Host Institution Award ID: G271-20-W7900
Grant Recipient: Merchant's Garden AgroTech Inc
Region: Western
State: Arizona
Principal Investigator:
Chaz Shelton
Merchant's Garden AgroTech Inc
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Project Information


This project seeks to evaluate the water consumption of urban agriculture in arid climates.  Increased climate change has amplified the attention of water consumption in agriculture.  New farming methods are being evaluated with the intent to reduce the use of water consumption while increasing yield to address the growing population's demand for food. Much research provides evidence of the reduced water consumption of alternative farming methods for large scale agriculture.  However, little research has been conducted on the effectiveness of these methods in arid climates for urban farming. With increased climate change comes increased arid land.  More research focused on the viability of farming in arid climates must be performed in order to lower the barriers for new farmers to utilize more sustainable farming practices. This project will evaluate the consumption of water in urban farming in Tucson Arizona.  The research will be conducted at a commercial urban farm, Merchant's Garden utilizing smart-water sensors to aggregate powerful data insights to evaluate the effectiveness of urban farming in the arid climate of Southern Arizona.  Data will be collected in real-time and assessed by technical adviser from the University of Arizona.  The results of this research will provide a foundation for water policy change and cost reduction for farmings in arid climates

Project Objectives:
  1. Objective: Increased accuracy of measuring water consumption with Smart Sensors in urban agriculture
    • Measure: Water added to the grow system & water added to the cooling system
    • Baseline: 2016-2018 historical data from Merchant’s Garden
    • Goal: 95% or greater accuracy for 3 consecutive months in Q2 or Q3 of 2020
    • Calculation: ((Sum of Smart meters report) - Monthly City Meter Report) / Monthly City Meter Report
    • Who: Parker Filer, will provide planning oversight. Chaz will implement. Dr. Kacira will review and advise
  1. Objective: Reduced water consumption of urban farming in arid climates
    • Measure: Gallons/Head of lettuce
    • Baseline: Average of 2016 & 2017 Data
    • Goal: 15% reduction in water consumption per head
    • Calculation: System updates on monthly log
    • Who: Technical advisor, Parker Filer, will provide planning oversight. Chaz Shelton will implement. Murat Kacira will review and advise
  1. Objective: Encourage the adoption of urban water rates by development and distribution of a case study
    • Measure: Number of regional stakeholders. Number of stakeholders attending presentation
    • Baseline: 0
    • Goal: 50,000 by the end of the project in Q4 2021
    • Calculation: email open rate and attendance numbers
    • Who: Parker Filer will lead classroom based education. Dr. Kacira will lead conference presentations. Chaz Shelton will city engagement  


Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Parker Filer - Technical Advisor
  • Dr. Murat Kacira (Educator and Researcher)
  • Chaz Shelton - Producer


Materials and methods:

Merchant’s Garden is an urban greenhouse farm located in Tucson Arizona that grows leafy greens year-round to serve Southern Arizona.  The research for this project will be conducted in the 10,000 SQFT commercial greenhouse.  This project will conduct a 2-year analysis comparing the farm’s financial and water consumption change after using smart sensing devices to monitor water consumption.  An ROI analysis will be performed to demonstrate the payback required to generate financial return on the capital expenditure invested.  Merchant’s Garden will pay the initial capital requirements to install the industrial and smart meters and then assess the changes in farm income and total water consumption for an urban farm that utilize access to high speed internet tools to manage farm water use.  Merchant’s Garden has 3 years of historical data that will serve as the benchmark comparison data to assess the on-farm water consumption and financial change. 

Objective 1 Increased accuracy of measuring water consumption with Smart Sensors in urban agriculture

Task A - Install Smart Meters

The installation of the hardware is the first step to effectively achieve the overall project goal of reducing water consumption and increasing financial performance in urban agriculture.  Beyond working with the City of Tucson to install the industrial meter, installation of the irrigation hardware will allow for the capture of data in a digital format.  Prior to the new meter installation, smart irrigation meters will be installed to understand where and what volumes water is being used in the greenhouse. Once the new industrial meter is installed, the smart meters will provide a more detailed assessment of where any changes in water consumption may occur, if at all.  By installing smart water meters, the farm operation can measure location of water consumption, time of consumption, and volume of consumption in real time.

Start date & Completion Date:

April 2020 – Aug 2020

Required Resources:

Cash, Greenhouse Hardware, New Industrial Meter, Data,

Who will do the work?

Intern #1, Intern #2, City of Tucson, University of Arizona & Chaz Shelton

Task B Install Industrial Water Meter

Once 5 months of data is gathered using the smart meters at the current water rate, the next step is to work with the City of Tucson to install a third-party industrial meter. This requires roughly 2 weeks of work on the city’s part.

Task C Compare Data

Following the installation of the new meter, 5 months of new data will be gathered.  Technical advisor, Parker Filer, and the University of Arizona will provide data analysis support and lead the efforts of assess the environmental impact, specifically the change in water consumption for an urban farmer.

Objective 2: Reduced water consumption of urban farming in arid climates

Making the data actionable is critical to truly extract value through the project efforts. With real time data coming from sensors, the second year of the project can be spent making incremental changes to improve water efficiency. Two data interns will be used to provide weekly assessments of where water is being consumed. A monthly meeting with held with Dr. Kacira to access water use relative to need. The next month new steps will be implemented.

Start date & Completion Date:

April 2020 – Aug 2020

Required Resources:

Cash, Greenhouse Hardware, New Industrial Meter, Data,

Who will do the work?

Intern #1, Intern #2, City of Tucson, University of Arizona & Chaz Shelton


Objective 2.B: Improve farm financial performance (Additional)

A return on investment analysis will be conducted to determine the degree of farm financial performance.  This University of Arizona will provide oversight on this analysis.  The investment considered is the capital expenditure to invest in a new water meter.  This investment will be compared to the amount of time required to gain additional operating income to the amount invested.

Start date & Completion Date:

April 2020 – Aug 2020

Required Resources:

Cash, Greenhouse Hardware, Data, Greenhouse Hardware

Who will do the work?

Intern #1, Intern #2, University of Arizona & Chaz Shelton

Objective 4: Encourage the adoption of smart meter use in urban water rates by development and distribution of a case study

Following the analysis, Merchant’s Garden will work with the Dr. Murat Kacira from University of Arizona to compile a case study that provides a background of the project, efforts, and results.  This case study will be distributed to the following stakeholders in Tucson: City of Tucson Water Department, Pima County Sewage, Tucson Mayor and Councilmembers.  Additionally, a meeting will be scheduled to discuss the results and the proposed policy recommendations. 


Also, the results will be shared with local farmers in Southern Arizona through case study flyers and presentations will be presented to Arizona Farm Bureau, Southern Arizona Young Farmer and Rancher Association, and the Southern Arizona Farmer Network.

List and describe each planned activity:


Digital newsletter, Presentation, Workshop, Farmer Meeting, Digital newsletter

Anticipated Completion Date:


Required Resources:

Cash, Greenhouse Hardware, Web Developers, Data, Greenhouse Hardware, Coders, Designers.


A.    U. of Arizona Extension Presentation

B.    Forbes AgTech Summit Presentation

C.    U. of Arizona Short-Course

D.    Southern Arizona Farm Network Presentation

E.     American Farm Bureau Presentation

Who will do the work?

Dr. Murat Kacira, Parker Filer, University of Arizona, Farm Bureau, Forbes, Intern #1, Chaz Shelton


Success Metrics

Annual goals and a break-out of the goals by first six-month and full twelve-months.


6 Month

12 Month

Water Savings



Educated Farmers



Local water rate

Present to City Council

Establish agriculture rate



Research results and discussion:

Below is an example of the data collected every 15 minutes.

We are compiling data and not yet drawing and results. That activity is to come. 

Participation Summary
5 Farmers participating in research

Educational & Outreach Activities

2 Consultations
2 On-farm demonstrations
3 Published press articles, newsletters

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

Outreach Plan






U. of Arizona Extension

May 2021


Digital newsletter

Factsheets & Article

Forbes AgTech Summit

June 2020

Salinas, CA


Social Media

U. of Arizona Short-Course

Jan 2020

Tucson, AZ



Southern Arizona Farm Network

April 2020

Tucson, AZ

Farmer Meeting


American Farm Bureau

July 2020


Digital newsletter

Article & Social Media

Industry Outreach

Merchant’s Garden spoke at a panel at Forbes Magazine’s AgTech Summit in Indianapolis, Indiana.  The panel, “How Vertical Farming and Aquaponics are Changing the Definition of Grown Locally.”  The company was asked to speak again at the 2019 Summit.  There Merchant’s Garden will share the efforts of this project.  Forbes shared this discussion on its digital platforms like Facebook, Youtube, and its website.  Over 100 million individuals view content on one of Forbes platforms.  Additionally, Merchant’s Garden was highlighted in American Farm Bureau’s web and print newsletter with updates on their farm research and business progress.  Farm Bureau has over 8 million members of which 2 million are farmers.  If funded by SARE, Merchant’s Garden will provide project updates through both Forbes Magazine and American Farm Bureau about the research efforts which will collectively reach over a 100 million people in the agriculture industry.


Hands-on Outreach

MG with extension agent Parker Filer plans to share its finding with local farmers in the Southern Arizona Farm Network.  Southern Arizona Farm Network is comprised of 8-12 farms in the Tucson greater region who are committed to providing local products to their community.  This non-profit is organized and facilitated by the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona.  Quarterly the farmers in this organization meet in-person at the Food Bank.  Merchant’s Garden will provide handouts at a field-day to these farmers on the progress and findings of their study.  Additionally, MG will provide demonstration videos online through their social media for these farmers.  These videos will break down step-by-step how to implement the proposed practices on their farm. 

MG also plans to work with Dr. Murat Kacira to provide a presentation at the short-courses offered at the University of Arizona’s Controlled Environmental Agriculture Center (CEAC). “The CEAC Extension and Outreach Programs include: the Annual Arizona Greenhouse Crop Production and Engineering Design Short Course; the Lunar Greenhouse – Outreach and Teaching Module (LGH-OTM); Social Media postings to Facebook, twitter, Instagram and You-Tube; On-site Tours, Meetings, Demonstrations and Conferences at the UA-CEAC; Newsletter and News Splash e-publications; and, Design and Analysis Services to homeowners, business developers, and entrepreneurs; Development of the Production & Education Greenhouse as an income generating, self-supporting entity.”  MG will partner with the CEAC Extension Office and provide social media content, handouts, and PowerPoint Presentations presented at the University quarterly.  The formal results of the proposal will be disseminated through the Cooperative Extension to regional offices across the state.

Learning Outcomes

40 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation

Project Outcomes

40 Farmers intend/plan to change their practice(s)
4 New working collaborations
Project outcomes:

Our project's goal is to provide a case study for urban agriculture water policy to be share with other municipalities across the country to encourage municipalities to offering their urban farmer community an urban agriculture water rate. Over the last year we have collected baseline data to demonstrate the volume of water consumed by using aquaponics in an urban area. Our next steps are to install a commercial water meter that is typically only available for large funded commercial companies which allows for a much lower water rate price.  We want to demonstrate to policy makers that by offering a lower water rate for urban agriculture, it does not encourage an overuse of water consumption.

 As a result of this efforts we hope to provide more transparency to potential farmers interested in starting an aquaponics operations in an arid, urban areas. Thes areas tend to have low availability of fresh, local fruits and veggies.

Success stories:

We have not started the outreach portion of our project yet. More information to come.


We have not started the outreach portion of our project yet. More information to come.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.