Editor’s note: AFN recently had the chance to speak with Gregg Halverson, president of Black Gold Farms. Halverson will be speaking at the Forbes Reinventing America: The AgTech Summit, taking place in Salinas, CA, July 8-9. Halverson will participate in the 11:30 a.m. panel called Rise of the Machines, discussing the many ways that automated technologies have revolutionized farming both today and tomorrow.
“Precision agriculture is not just about making the tractor drive straight. Its about how many seeds per acre you are putting in the ground, how deep they are going, how we are using moisture sensors to measure water usage, determining how often we need to irrigate. It is a wide spectrum, and it can be whatever you want it to be,” says Black Gold Farms President Gregg Halverson.
In the abstract, it can sometimes be difficult to see how precision agriculture products can come together to turn a farm into a high-tech business. As an early adopter of many precision agriculture technologies, Black Gold Farms provides an excellent example of how these tools can revolutionize and optimize every aspect of a business.
Founded in 1928 by Hallie Halverson, the then 10-acre farm has grown into an operation that encompasses 30,000 acres across 12 different states. The fourth generation, family-owned farming organization began in North Dakota’s Red River Valley. The company name reflects the organization’s two endeavors—cattle and potatoes. Black for the ebony black hue of their Black Angus cattle’s hide and gold for the buttery yellow hue of the potatoes that populate roughly 25,000 acres of their land holdings. Black Gold Farms left the Black Angus seedstock business in 1986 when industry trends called for consolidation and a reduction in the Upper Midwest’s livestock population.
Today, the multi-state operation provides a substantial portion of supply to the potato chip industry while also providing consumers with a variety of freshly grown and harvested potatoes for purchase at their local supermarket. In 2010, the company made its foray into sweet potatoes in response to the growing consumer demand for the popular spud.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service, “Potatoes are the leading vegetable crop in the United States (not including sweet potatoes), contributing about 15 percent of farm sales receipts for vegetables.” Roughly half of the spuds sold in the United States become French fries, potato chips, and dehydrated potatoes. The other half is sent to the supermarket.
Throughout the years, agriculture technology has helped Black Gold Farms accomplish its staggering growth—multiplying its land holdings by 3,000% over 87 years. According to Halverson, however, many of the technologies designed to help growers farm more efficiently are tailored toward the immensely prevalent corn and soybean crops. “As a result, we’ve had to learn how to adapt, modify, change, and invent. This has given us some great opportunities to do things our way.”
Potatoes present a particular set of challenges when it comes to formulating precision agriculture tools. For starters, potato seed pieces are irregular in shape, making many precision agriculture technologies a poor fit for potato seed application. “We are trying to figure out ways of doing a better job of cutting and measuring seed so we can do a more efficient job of planting,” says Halverson.”
Precision agriculture has proved particularly helpful when it comes to tracking efficiency rates among Black Gold Farms’ many facilities. The company moves millions of pounds of potatoes around the country each year, with one of the biggest pushes taking place in the week leading up to July 4th, when potato chips become a much sought after staple for backyard BBQs and campouts. On June 29, 2015, for example, the company moved 170 loads in one day alone, amounting to almost 7 million pounds of potatoes. Precision agriculture technologies are used to track each load along the way.
Utilizing its internal IT department, Black Gold Farms has developed a comprehensive system that collects a wide variety of data regarding the company’s daily operations. For Halverson and the Black Gold Farms team, efficiency is paramount. “We are working on a project now where we measure how long it takes a truck coming into our yard to load up and leave the yard,” says Halverson.
For Halverson, collecting information is only half the battle. “It’s not just precision agriculture now. The Holy Grail is converting all of that data into dollars and the way we do that is through a very robust ERP, or Enterprise Resource Planning, system. This is where it all comes together.”
Using the data it collects about each truckload, the company can compare procedures and develop a set of best practices. “Once we track one load, we can take all the loads for a day, a customer, attributable to a field, attributable to a given potato harvester, and see how it measures up.” The data tracking systems allow Black Gold Farms to benchmark one facility against another. “Unless you can measure and compare it, its useless information,” says Halverson.
This practice can also be particularly helpful when it comes to achieving the most nutritious output possible. “Potatoes are the most nutritious, satisfying vegetable grown in the world. Precision agriculture allows us to measure inputs and outputs and figure out where we get our nutrition based on those inputs.”
Not all potatoes are created equally, with some offering a high nutrient content. Figuring out the magic combination of inputs that yields a nutritionally robust product is an exercise in trial and error. “Test, test, test, and test again,” says Halverson. “We have PhD’s on staff that give us a competitive advantage through the R&D that we do in-house. We have customers that are asking for the data in addition to the highly nutritious vegetable, so we have to do our best to supply it.”
Although potatoes are grown all year, roughly 90 percent of potato production takes place in the fall season. Due to their highly stable characteristics and hearty shelf life, potatoes are prime for long-term storage in climate controlled containers or rooms, and can travel over substantial distances. Chipping potatoes, the name given to potatoes that become chips, however, are grown to have a very thin skin. This results in a more palatable end product, but it also means the potatoes have a short window between when they are harvested and when they will start to rot.
Black Gold Farms’ Live Oak, Florida, location is one of Frito-Lay’s suppliers. In order to keep the king of chips in supply, Black Gold Farms enlisted the help of some high-tech machinery. Freshly harvested potatoes retain much of the heat from the ground, especially in Florida’s sweltering climate. In order to bring the spuds’ temp down after harvest, Black Gold Farms runs them through a hydrocooler, which provides a the potatoes with a sub-forty degree water bath.
Precision agriculture also allows Black Gold Farms to track two of its main inputs: water and fertilizer. “One of the main tenants of biotech is internal water use, or the level of water efficiency that a particular variety has. The data allows us to take our most water efficient varieties and make those a priority,” says Halverson. “We measure and report our water because it’s a finite commodity.”
Leading up to the Forbes Reinventing America: The AgTech Summit, Halverson is most looking forward to the opportunity for exchange: “I want to be able to share ideas, listen, learn, and find out where the cutting edge of ag data is located. California is the salad bowl and certainly we can learn from those that are in the epicenter of high tech ag production, as well as the center of the computer world.”
Halverson doesn’t see any limits to the potential information exchange, particularly among fellow growers. “Maybe I will be able to take an idea from a lettuce producer and apply it to potatoes, or a citrus producer. Ag is a pretty wide and diverse industry and sometimes we don’t share quite enough. I am willing to share whatever I have.”
When it comes to the future of precision agriculture and big data, Halverson’s outlook is optimistic. “My thought is that we are just at the beginning in our quest for turning the raw data into actionable, intelligible results.”
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