GroAdvisor speaks with Justin Jacobs, AST Field Tech Lead at Argus Controls. The company is an automated control systems pioneer with over thirty years of leadership and innovation in control technology. Justin has been in his current position for 2 years. As part of his role, he travels to different sites all over North America. He has been working with Argus and Conviron equipment for the past six years. Justin has more than 20 years of low voltage controls experience. He also has more than 20 years of business management and budgeting experience.

Argus provides automated control systems for horticulture, aquaculture, and related biotechnology industries. Our capabilities include facilities automation and specialty monitoring and control applications to support the needs of our customers.


Announcer  0:02 

You’re listening to the Greenhouse and Indoor Cultivation podcast presented by GroAdvisor. Tune in to learn strategies to grow your business, get the most out of your cultivation systems and advance your horticulture career.

Brandon Newkirk  0:17 

Today on the line, we have Justin Jacobs, ASE Field Tech Lead for Argus Controls, as well as William Goodin our VP of Business Development. Today we’ll be talking about considerations for grow room and greenhouse control systems. Justin brings to us a wealth of expertise in controls, six years of horticultural research experience, 20+ years of agriculture and livestock management experience, and plenty of business management and budgeting experience. So really bringing us a perspective from all facets of running the cultivation business. Nice to have you here today, Justin.

Justin Jacobs  0:53 

Thank you. It’s great to be here.

Brandon Newkirk  0:55 

So why don’t you give us a little background on how you came to Argus Controls and how you entered the horticultural industry, and why are you passionate about this today?

Justin Jacobs  1:08 

So I’ve kind of been in and out of horticulture my whole life, I grew up in a farming family in Arizona. In addition to that, my wife, she comes from a farming family in North Dakota. So it’s been part of our lives since we were born. We went on to actually be in a livestock management business for about 15-20 years, whether it be dairy cattle, horses, and whatnot. And then I got the opportunity to work at a research facility that studies grazing cultivars. I had an extensive background in controls. And they were needing someone to help with their automation and the greenhouses and growth chambers to do some conversions and just get things up to date. So that ended up working out pretty well for me. In fact, it transferred me into a job with Argus Controls. When Argus Controls saw what I could do with greenhouse management and controls, they offered me a position and I’ve been there ever since.

Brandon Newkirk  2:23 

Outstanding. Yeah, that’s a great background, coming from a farming community and livestock community, and it’s great to have that level of applications knowledge. You told me prior to the call, you did a lot of maintenance tech and control systems over at Noble Research Institute. And with Argus, you’re traveling around to these cultivation facilities all the time. What’s that like? And maybe give the listeners a little bit of your day-to-day and what it is that you do before we dive into some suggestions for their own growth.

Justin Jacobs  3:02 

So mainly, what I do is after our design team has put together a system for a customer that best suits what equipment they have on site, I am kind of the final person that does full and final commissioning, making sure all the programming is correct and that all the controls are tied into the equipment correctly, and everything’s functioning properly. So on a day to day basis, I’m basically at a different growing facility every week.

Brandon Newkirk  3:39 

That’s amazing. Plenty of experience on the front lines, then. So let’s dive right into it. You’re a control expert for Argus controls. Being a GroAdvisor partner, a leader in the space, there’s so much to be said about controls and their potential. What are some of the top applications for controls that you think a lot of cultivators miss out on? Because certainly there’s so much discussion about predictive algorithms, AI, and all the different facets and inputs that could go into controls. Specifically for those just getting started out, you know, it’s a lot to consume. What are some of the more popular choices and areas you see the most impact? And maybe what are some of the novel implementations that you’ve worked on?

Justin Jacobs  4:29 

Well, I mean, it ranges from indoor to greenhouse. You know, the main thing when growers are first starting out in this industry, which there are a lot of new growers into the larger commercial industry, trying to keep it simple, at first is definitely the direction to go. And trusting. If you’re gonna put an automated system in, you have to learn to trust that system. I know it takes a while to gain that trust, because things are making decisions that you have initial control over, because you decided why they will make certain decisions and moves as far as your equipment goes. But then as you start getting more and more complex, you know, you can do daily light integral adaptations to your greenhouses. Then you get into complex fertigation delivery, and also even, for example, micro pulsing irrigation, to your crops. Like I tell everybody at first, so you don’t get overwhelmed, keep it simple. But you as you get more comfortable with automated systems, there really is no limit, as far as control, as long as the equipment is there. So, you know, as far as like indoor grows, you can do different light dimming sequences. We’ve had very good success with Rh control and temperature control down to even half a degree plus or minus off your setpoint for temperature and to 3% Rh plus or minus off the setpoint. A lot of this really depends on equipment selection. And then you have to leave it up to the experts to let your equipment be fully automated.

Brandon Newkirk  6:34 

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think trust is a huge component, especially when we’re talking about automation, I know that there’s sometimes a hesitancy in the industry to completely trust the system outside of someone’s hands. But people have to think there’s only so much you can manage on top of mind, or you could have a large team of controls integration experts and advisors managing it for you. It’s not like it’s outside of your control, it’s just having a team along there with you, and a whole lot of technology behind you.

Justin Jacobs  7:09 

Yeah. I think that’s really important. And when you talk about team, you can have great growers, but you also need some great maintenance people that understand these control systems very well. And that way, the growers can really concentrate on the plants, and all the other work that goes into the equipment maintenance and all that automation is taken care of. Then growers can really concentrate on what’s best for their plants.

Brandon Newkirk  7:42 

Absolutely, yeah. Focus on your core competency, and then leave the rest to us. Right? It’s a lower overhead for them in the end, so that’s a huge benefit. That brings me to my next point… You’ve been a facilities manager in house before. If you were to consult a facility, whether on site or working in house, what are some of the things, whether it be an equipment standpoint or control standpoint, that you would recommend for a facility to maximize their uptime?

Justin Jacobs  8:12 

So what I really preach on every site I go to, is preventative maintenance. Some of the cool things that Argus controls has are timers that are tied to equipment. So say, for example, you have a motor that has so many hours before its life expectancy is coming towards the end. We actually put timers towards that and alarms that you can actually say hey, we’re at this many hours, we’re getting this alarm. Let’s do a scheduled downtime, maybe when we’re turning over a room. Let’s go in there to do full maintenance on motors, fans, emitters, all kinds of this different equipment, whichever it might be in that greenhouse or indoor grow. That way you have scheduled downtime. You know the worst thing that you possibly have this unscheduled downtime, because of course, you don’t know when that might be, and usually it’s, you know, two or three o’clock in the morning inevitably. And you may or may not have that part on hand. So what might be a one hour to two hour scheduled downtime, might be a two day unscheduled downtime. So that’s something I’ve really been preaching to every facility that I go to. The other part of that is actually shelving some of your equipment, especially high wear equipment. And that even goes to your control equipment, your automation equipment, like output cards, IO modules, controllers. It’s just real important because if you do have a breakdown, you don’t have to call someone, order it, and have it rushed out. And hopefully it gets there before you have any kind of crop loss or damage. If you actually have it on the shelf, and someone trained to be able to replace that equipment quite quickly… It makes a huge difference. So that’s also a big thing I’ve been telling every facility.

Will Goodin  10:24 

Interesting. Yeah, then that definitely makes sense. You know, I’m kind of curious, some of the areas of expertise that GroAdvisor and our partners consult on are not only environmental controls, but things like water management, irrigation fertigation, process controls, equipment, automation, monitoring. For our listeners, let’s say specifically someone starting a new facility, what information would you ask them to prepare ahead of time to get the most comprehensive package together for their operations?

Justin Jacobs  11:03 

Well, I think you’ve really got to start with the basics. I think, people, a lot of times will look past this, just assuming too much. First thing I ask is set points. What temperature do you want these zones to be at? Secondly, would be, what relative humidity would you like these to be set at? A third thing is obviously light levels. Durations. So you go into those just very basic things and start building a base from there, and those are environmental controls. Then you start going into water management. Are you going to be delivering nutrient? How many recipes are going to be doing? What’s the complexities behind that? Are you going to be micro pulsing irrigation? What kind of media are you gonna be growing in? So you’re really building up that base, and making sure everyone is clear on the same page. Being sure there’s nothing that’s going to get missed later down the road during construction, or you’ll have to take things in a different direction, or you’ll have a lot of change orders and whatnot.

Will Goodin  12:25 

Right, okay. And for our listeners’ edification, what do you mean by micropulsing?

Justin Jacobs  12:34 

Depending on what kind of media you’re growing in, you may want to water in a duration, that might be one minute. And then you might want to do that every five minutes. It’s to get a certain delivery in a day, to your plants, and it kind of depends on what type of cultivars you’re growing. Whether it be just root cloth, flowers, vegetables, cannabis, and if you’re growing and cocoa, rockwool, you know, all the different varieties that you might have, how much runoff you might want. So there’s a lot of different techniques, a lot of different opinions on how best to irrigate. We have an automation system that has the versatility to adapt to all growers opinions on how it’s best to deliver water to their crop is really crucial.

Will Goodin  13:44 

I’ve seen it done 1001 ways, and I’m sure you have too, so very cool that the Argus system is so versatile. And that actually brings to mind how we encounter clients who are either expanding operations or just getting into the business and there’s an ever-present pressure of labor costs, energy costs, all this operational expenditure that folks need to take into consideration. And it really makes a strong case for efficiency and automation, you in terms of long-term success and profitability for your grow, right? So let’s talk about the controls as they relate to cost. If you had to guess, and if you could impart this upon our listeners, where are the largest cost savings to be had going with an Argus-type system?

Justin Jacobs  14:49 

Oh, just in a greenhouse alone, you can actually program your photoperiod for your lights but you can also program thresholds also. So if the light level falls below a certain threshold of light coming through the greenhouse itself, you’ll have the lights turn on. At the same time, if it surpasses that threshold, you have lights turning off. So you’re can really put that threshold to the point, and again it’s cultivar dependent, you can raise or lower that threshold to be what you feel is the most efficient possible for your crop. That’s just one aspect of it. Another aspect in automation is putting in, for example, moisture sensors. You put in moisture sensors in your medium and you can actually know if you’re getting good dry downs and if you actually need to increase or decrease your water durations. So again, it’s being as efficient as possible with your electricity and your water. Extremely important.

Will Goodin  16:11 

Yeah, not only from a cost standpoint, but being environmentally sensitive as well. It’s apparent that there’s a ton of savings to be had. I know that you visited a lot of facilities… Are there are there certain cost savings or time management savings that growers often aren’t realizing? And what’s one thing that you could impart upon our listeners, specifically to the growers out there, that they can do to realize their full growth potential when it comes to automation?

Justin Jacobs  16:52 

Yeah, that’s a really good question. There’s another program that we have that is actually a spray program. So this is a program that gets laid down, you tie certain equipment with it, and it will actually automatically shut down equipment and turn it back on, without someone actually having to physically do this. So I see a lot of facilities that say, hey, I want to spray, but even when they have a certain level of automation in their greenhouse, they still have to turn off the equipment and spray manually. With an Argus automation system and spray program, you can fully automate this so that throughout your spray program, you just basically hit one button, and it goes through all these shutdown and startup sequences. So that’s one way to save a lot of time right there alone. And there’s a there’s a host of other things, like fertilizer delivery. I still see a lot of hand mixing going on, especially on the smaller facilities, where there’s some great fertilizer delivery systems could automate that for you. Argus has one. Another company that we work with a lot is H.E. Anderson. Injection systems work really great if you’re if you’re doing a lot of heavy organics and whatnot. So again, with these systems in place with the proper control system, your grow could be completely automated. It’s one click, and you deliver that recipe or purge the line. It’s all can be automated. So again, a real big savings from time and from labor.

Brandon Newkirk  19:14 

Yeah. There’s a lot to be said around the labor savings. Labor is a big cost. And time, right?

Let’s take a big step back. You know, there’s so much talk of AI and predictive algorithms amongst tech companies in this space today. Going back to trust, there’s always the conversation of whether the growers trust technology, even if it’s rather bulletproof at a certain stage. But talking about the future, where do you see this industry going in the next few years? What will it be like being a facilities manager or a grower in a greenhouse in the next five years? Where do you see it headed? A bit of a futurist view…

Justin Jacobs  20:09 

One thing I’ve always dreamed about is actually, because I come from the growth chamber industry also… Our sister company, Conviron, they build from small experimental chambers all the way to large growth rooms. So I’ve always kind of dreamed about actually taking live data from different regions around the world, and actually being able to implement them into the program on a real time basis. So, for example, if it’s raining in Costa Rica with a certain temperature and a certain Rh, and you’re doing experiments in, for example, St. Louis or the Carolinas, about a certain flower or a certain plant, and you’re wanting to replicate exact Costa Rica conditions, that you can actually create weather in these environments in real time. I think that’s a really cool direction in the future. Very complex, but very, very cool.

Now, in the greenhouse era, with the greenhouse industry you could also do weather predictability. So it’s just basically weather forecasting. So just like what your weatherman does now it through very educated models through very educated guessing, and say, is tomorrow gonna be sunny? Or is it gonna be cloudy? In anticipation of that, do we need to pull some shade cloths? Are we going to need to have extensive lighting that day? So I think, you know, as far as AI, some of that information can be inputted into automation that could greatly make facilities more even more efficient, and just try to provide the best growing environment possible. So I think I think some of that is a direction we may be going.

Brandon Newkirk  22:28 

Absolutely, yeah. Some of our partners here at GroAdvisor are working on predictability. Some of it’s even already launched and available. But what you’re talking about is really exciting in terms of almost like a risk mitigation component of being able to trial various climates that are happening in real time all over the world and growth chambers elsewhere in the world at an enterprise scale. And that’s really exciting. I think we will see that here in the near future.

Well, outside of speaking with a GroAdvisor expert, or of course, visiting the Argus website, not everybody out there who is starting a cultivation or expanding their cultivation facility, comes from a background of growing up in farm tech. And they certainly don’t have your controls experience. Are there any other additional resources out there that you would mention or recommend for a grower that’s trying to take their controls to the next level? Maybe there are and maybe there’s not, which would be all right, and in that case I would suggest that they talk to Argus or a GroAdvisor. But we like to empower our growers as much as possible.

Justin Jacobs  23:44 

Yeah, I would talk to the industry. There’s a lot of knowledge out there. You know, a lot of times you’re just trying to find out what not to do, or what direction not to go. There’s still a huge amount of great ideas out there. I’m sure, in the next 10 or 15 years, we’re going to see some phenomenal sites get developed. There’s innovative growers out there who’ve got fresh ideas coming into the industry. And we’re, we’re already seeing some really exciting things. So I would get out there. Unfortunately, through the COVID thing right now, a lot of the trade shows are not happening. But when that does come back around, just walking those and talking to the people, you can get a wealth of knowledge out there. And then of course, people that grow plants are great people. So it’s just a good bunch to be around. But yeah, I mean, if you’re open minded and you just explore, whether it be reading or talking to people, there’s a wealth of knowledge out there.

Brandon Newkirk  25:07 

Absolutely. Yeah, I’d say we’re in an AgTech renaissance these days. This has been really great and we’ve really enjoyed having you on Justin. I appreciate you taking the time. We’ll talk to you soon.

Justin Jacobs  25:20 

All right. Thank you guys very much.

Brandon Newkirk  25:23 

Thank you. Awesome.

Will Goodin  25:24 

Thank you, Justin. Appreciate you, brother.