Editor’s Note: James Sulecki is corporate content director of Meister Media Worldwide. Ahead of the PrecisionAg Vision Conference in Phoenix, Arizona next month, he writes about five key trends the media company is seeing in horticulture technology for the fruit and vegetable industry.
When precision agriculture first erupted in the 1990s, it was targeted primarily to producers of Midwestern row crops, especially corn, soybean, sugar beets, and wheat. When someone said “precision,” most people heard “field mapping, variable rate application, yield monitoring” – solutions that were often big-iron and nearly always big-dollar, and were aimed at reducing input costs and farmers’ environmental footprint. Small-acre horticultural crops generally need not apply.
But the ongoing digitization of the farm is exploding long-held assumptions. When data scientists at companies like Climate Corporation jump into agriculture and begin talking about incredible variations detected by their technologies – like finding 40% variability within soil samples taken just three feet apart, or that 10 rain gauges right next to each other in a field could have as much as a quarter-inch difference among them – suddenly the phrase “site-specific farming,” the original moniker for precision, takes on renewed meaning. The promise of knowing exactly what is happening in any given field down to the foot or even inch, and being able to manipulate innumerable factors on the fly, becomes a near- to mid-term reality. And that’s ambrosia for all growers whether they’re managing one acre of wine grapes or 1,000 acres of commodity grains.
Enter “hort tech.” When growers of tree fruit, citrus, nuts, vine crops, and vegetables can use increasingly affordable digital tools and online platforms to keep detailed, year-over-year production data they can analyze and adapt for the following year’s crop and intensively manage variability across their operations … heck yeah, that’s “precision farming.” And because producers of horticultural crops generally are more reliant on hand labor and are closer in the food chain to processors and end-use consumers than are grain producers, horticulture technology offers them the additional promise of automation and track-and-trace in the field, in the packinghouse, and beyond.
So where specifically are the nearer-term opportunities in horticulture technology, especially in practical usage that growers are likeliest to embrace? Here are five areas to keep a particular eye on, as compiled by editors at Meister Media Worldwide.
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Yield monitoring in fruits and nuts
Yield monitoring has been done in Midwestern grain crops for years, but look for the technology to move west to the large winegrape vineyards of the Pacific states. The reason is simple: All winegrowers can tell you there is significant yield variability within blocks, but now they will be able to measure it. The advantage is that growers can implement zonal vineyard management. Rather than being managed uniformly, as is now typical, individual blocks can be split into zones in which the management of both inputs to, and outputs from, the production system can be applied differentially. And there’s no reason such yield monitors need be limited to wine grapes. While it would be difficult with current technology to adapt a system for hand-harvested crops, it would seem to be quite a boon to other mechanized crops. California’s big three nut crops – almonds, walnuts, and pistachios – seem to be excellent candidates. Zonal management with the use of yield monitors would enable nut growers to boost per-acre yields – a significant advantage with the cost of suitable land for tree nut crops soaring. The market is huge, as the bearing acreage of the big three nut crops in the Golden State now tops 1.5 million acres.
A good current example of the potential for this technology is Fagerberg Produce, a grower/packer/shipper of about 1,300 acres of yellow, red, and white onions in Eaton, CO, that has figured out how to produce a high-yielding onion crop and save water at the same time. The farm is noted as the first to purchase autopilot GPS to install drip tape within sub-centimeter accuracy. Today, with the help of his smartphone, Rod Weimer, Fagerberg’s farm manager, can check rates, start and stop fertilizer, and water from virtually anywhere thanks to a fully automated drip irrigation system. Since installing drip irrigation, the farm has reduced its water usage by 40% and gone from using 3.5 acre feet of water when flood-irrigating to only 1.6 acre feet using drip.
Availability and affordability of labor is a perpetual pain point in agriculture, but Grimmway Farms in Bakersfield, CA, hopes to be on track to a solution. The company has been testing a concept from the world of ornamental flowers and plants – growing plants in pots – to see if it can work in the broad expanses of vegetable fields. Rather than have teams of field workers handle those pots, Grimmway is piloting the ability of robots to move the plants out into the field to grow then bring them back in at the end of the season for early harvest.
Internet of Things wireless connectivity
Systems like Climate’s FieldView Pro already use Bluetooth to digitally display real-time field data on an iPad as equipment passes through the field, then store it in the cloud. But as reported early this year, small-scale but high-value horticulture operations like Hahn Family Wines in Soledad, CA, can take an Internet of Things approach to monitor a host of environmental and growing conditions in real time. Using 4G cell service provided by Verizon AgTech, Hahn last fall installed sensors every six acres in its vineyards to measure soil moisture, humidity, and temperature. The resulting analytics enable the operation to make better decisions about when to water, how to spot irrigation leaks, when to apply crop protection materials, and when to harvest.
Unmanned aerial systems (UAS)
Interest in use of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) is moving from novelty to practical applications in agriculture. With the Federal Aviation Administration providing guidance on the legal use of small commercial UAS, the technology is set to take off in Florida specialty crop production. Researchers have been seeking applications for the aircraft, including identification of greening – a devastating disease in citrus – and the ability to estimate the fruit production on trees. A scientist at the University of Central Florida is developing systems that utilize UAS to scout strawberry fields. When the imagery collected by the UAS identifies a potential problem, it signals a ground robot to autonomously drive to the spot in the field to more closely inspect the area with higher-resolution imagery. Private companies are forming to offer the technology to growers as well. Highlands Precision Ag, for example, will deploy its UAS on behalf of growers. “UAS is simply a vehicle to collect data on crops,” says Steve Maxwell, CEO of the company. “As cameras become more precise and big data becomes more accessible, the imagery will fundamentally change the agriculture industry both environmentally and even in the marketing of crops.”