By Larry Aylward, Meister Media Worldwide
With their creation of the “White Box,” Deborah and John Miller were clearly thinking outside the box.
The couple, who own and operate The Deerpoint Group, a Madera, California-based business that offers innovative solutions to help solve growers’ challenges, introduced the White Box – a nickname for its patented DPG Continuous Fertigation system – in 2009. Since then, the Millers have continued to refine the precision feeding system, a leading-edge turnkey nutrient program for growers throughout California.
The DPG Continuous Fertigation system is often called “The White Box” by growers because its principal component is a large steel white box that’s chock full of secret high-tech innovation. The White Box takes its name from the Black Box, which is viewed in terms of its inputs and outputs but with no knowledge of its internal workings. The White Box’s hardware, software, composition of matter, and method of application are covered by dozens of protected patents. And while it comprises only part of the DPG Continuous Fertigation system, the name has stuck when referring to the entire system.
John Miller invented the White Box, with input from his wife Deborah. Chemists by trade, the Millers came to California from the Midwest in the early 1990s and soon formed a vision to transform agricultural irrigation through water treatment solutions, which they have accomplished and continue to do. About 13 years ago, they decided to extend that vision to fertilization and a result of that is the White Box, which also includes a series of pumps capable of feeding up to 12 different specialized liquid nutrients simultaneously and an automated pH control system. With its advanced hardware and exclusive software, the White Box can help growers increase yields while lowering their total cost per acre.
No More Waste
Deborah calls California and the west coast “specialty cropland.” That doesn’t mean farmers don’t grow corn or cotton, but they mostly grow almonds, pistachios, wine grapes, tomatoes, leafy greens, pomegranates, kiwi, citrus, and other specialty crops, she says.
“What we saw when we first came here was a fertilizer and water treatment industry that was geared toward slug applications,” says Deborah, who is a Certified Crop Advisor. “If a grower needed 40 pounds of nitrogen on an almond crop in May, it would be slug fed for the month’s usage through a drip system in 20 minutes to an hour.”
The Millers were startled by the process. The problem with slug feeding is plants can’t take up the large amounts of Nitrogen, Potassium, Phosphate, or other nutrients quickly enough when they are released in the root zone and leaching can occur, Deborah explains. “A lot of nutrients are wasted because they go beyond the root zone and, in fact, contaminate the groundwater,” she says.
The Millers saw an opportunity and a chance to assist growers environmentally and economically. “We asked ourselves, ‘What if we could feed several nutrients simultaneously through drip or micro-irrigation,’” Deborah says.
So, they went to work on creating the DPG Continuous Fertigation. The Millers took it to some of their water treatment customers who were happy to implement the system. “It was a natural extension to go to our closest growers to introduce the concept of DPG Continuous Fertigation,” Deborah says. “We had already built partnerships with them.”
Deborah says the DPG Continuous Fertigation program is comparable to a “mini fertilizer plant.” It is installed on a grower’s site and operated by a Deerpoint Group technician who is responsible for filling tanks, calibration, documenting water and nutrient usage, maintaining inventory, visually inspecting crops, collecting and analyzing tissue and soil, fine-tuning outputs, and e-mailing weekly reports. In fact, Deerpoint Group does all the work.
Even though they don’t perform any labor, growers approve every step of the program. They also remain informed about their fertilization programs through Deerpoint Group’s Grower Portal, which allows them access to tank levels, water flow rate, nutrient goals, fertilizer feed rates, and attainment of target nutrients. But growers aren’t privy to what’s inside the White Box, which can only be controlled by a trained Deerpoint Group technician.
Anthony Coelho III, partner at Coelho Farms in Five Points, Calif., has used the White Box for about seven years. Coelho III, who grows almonds, grapes, pistachios, cherries, and several row crops, says he has always been a proponent of continuous fertigation and that Deerpoint Group has mastered the method.
Coelho III says implementing the White Box “essentially brought in a custom fertilizer applicator with weekly reporting” to his operation. He says the system has provided the recordkeeping he had been looking for and has made him feel more accountable about his operation.
A Smart Investment
Deborah calls the White Box “a paradigm shift” in agriculture fertilization. While she says some growers have told her they’ve “heard” the system is expensive, she begs to differ. When Miller asks customers where they heard that, a common response is they heard it from Deerpoint Group’s competitors. “What else are they going to say?” Miller says of the competitors.
The proof that the White Box isn’t expensive is in the cost per-acre price and budget that Deerpoint Group provides its customers, Deborah says. “And we live within that budget,” she adds. “Our system is cost-competitive, even economic.”
Coelho III says he heard talk among his peers that the White Box was expensive. But after using it, he says the system is just the opposite.
“[The White Box] has actually saved me money,” Coelho III says, noting the system has allowed him to spend money on areas of his farm where nutrients are needed most.
“The first year we used it, we saved more than $100 an acre.”
The White Box is not only smart, but also sustainable. Its precision and on-time and on-target delivery of nutrients means there is no waste. Its maximum efficiency means that crops receive the nutrients they need and when they need them. It can also be customized to fit a grower’s needs.
Deerpoint Group works directly with its customers, which equates to another avenue of saving. “It’s not a model that you see much in agriculture, but you can’t run the White Box through retail,” Deborah says.
Deerpoint Group, located on 12 acres in Madera, has experienced steady growth over the years. The company employs nearly 100 employees, including software engineers and chemists. It also partners with several vendors.
Deerpoint Group’s customer code states, “We measure our success by our customers’ success – a story that’s rooted in trust and partnership, that blossoms into new innovations and creative solutions, and which produces higher quality, greater yields and increase profits.”
“Credibility is everything in farming,” Deborah says.
Deborah and John, who have been married for more than 40 years, met while working together in a lab at a chemical manufacturing plant in Chicago in 1976. Deborah, who is the company’s President, grew up on a farm in southeast Ohio and hasn’t forgotten her roots. John, who grew up near Chicago, is the company’s CEO. They own nearly 40 patents and focuses on new fertilizer technology.
“We have great synergy,” Deborah says of their relationship. “We share a vision.”
That vision is helping to transform California agriculture.