Technology that saves time and money

PHOTO COURTESY OF ARGUS.
Interior of an Argus custom-integrated control and power distribution panel.

These days, growers don’t have to be anywhere near their farm to change the irrigation on their crops. They can print out a report for the EPA at a moment’s notice, and they can trace a head of lettuce that’s already been
consumed to the row where it was grown.

Technology saves growers valuable time. It may save them money; it definitely will help them improve the efficiency of their operation and not only comply with regulations, but also effortlessly produce detailed reports, from pesticide applications to food safety.

GPS/GIS

Bob Jones Jr. operates The Chef’s Garden, a family farm in Huron, Ohio. He began using GPS (global positioning system) software for mapping fields years ago. The farm has around 225 acres planted in heirloom and specialty vegetables, culinary herbs and edible flowers, which they sell direct to chefs around the world. In 2002, the family established the Culinary Vegetable Institute, where chefs meet, experiment with ingredients and develop menus.

Jones has been using hand-held scanners, which have both GPS and GIS software, for about five years to record seed lots, plantings, irrigation and pesticide applications, harvest information and inventory. “I got into it because of food safety concerns more than anything,” he says. Buyers are requiring accurate records and growers are going to have to provide them if they want to stay in business.

GPS uses latitude and longitude coordinates to show the locations of objects such as field boundaries, roads and irrigation systems. The areas can be broken down into any size section the grower chooses. “We have five levels of farm identification,” Jones says. “Farm name, field number, section number, bed number and row number. We can go down to 1/144 of an acre.”

PHOTO COURTESY OF ARGUS.
Typical in-greenhouse installation of Argus control system at Rockwell Farms in North Carolina.

GIS (geographic information systems) software brings GPS to life. A number of companies have developed management programs that use GPS and GIS, some of them specifically for growers, and these have made precision agriculture possible. Some systems require a hand-held unit with the software, which growers take into the fields, plus a desktop or laptop computer with the same program; other systems are complete in the hand-held unit itself.

With these systems, growers can apply seeds, chemicals, nutrients and water to specific areas of fields only, and record the times and amounts. They can map pest and weed infestations far more accurately than before, and easily monitor and change their practices, reducing expenses and increasing yields because inputs are applied more efficiently.

“We’re constantly testing different cultural techniques,” Jones says. “Our primary goal isn’t yield, though, it’s quality, flavor, shelf life and value.”

Orange Enterprises, Inc., in Fresno, Calif., has developed two programs that growers can use. The Payroll Employee Tracking (PET) program uses ID badges with bar codes for companies to track employees as they work in the fields. This electronic timekeeping makes employee tracking and payroll more efficient and more accurate, says Udi Sosnik, marketing director of Orange Enterprises. It also provides traceability and compliance for food safety.

PHOTO COURTESY OF THE CHEF’S GARDEN.
A sample of the different varieties of potatoes grown at The Chef’s Garden.

“Food safety is so important in the vegetable industry,” Sosnik says. “PET allows traceability throughout the production cycle: from where each piece was harvested to where it was shipped.” If there’s any question about the safety of a product, it can be traced back easily.

Orange Enterprises’ Tiger Jill and Pocket Jill software also cover farm management. They track inventory locations as well as cultivation and application costs, maintain harvest records and prepare inventory, cost accounting and compliance reports.

With Pocket Jill, a hand-held computer that uses Windows for Pocket PC, growers can enter data in their fields, such as when, where and what crops were planted, soil conditions, pesticide and nutrient applications, irrigation, equipment usage and employee hours. They also can scan bins of produce for traceability. The data is synchronized with the Tiger Jill program on a desktop or laptop computer.

“Growers are usually up and running within a week,” Sosnik says. They don’t need an IT manager, although some large operations hire one. The cost depends on the product, which can be tailored to the size of the operation.

The FarmLogic System, a Web-based management program, can be used in the field via its FarmPAD software on a Trimble Nomad hand-held computer. It provides farmers a satellite images of the fields, GPS and GIS, full chemical database access, drawing tools and additional Microsoft software capabilities.

Growers can access their information from any computer with Internet access and print reports at any time.

PHOTO BY FARMLOGIC.
Richard Smotherman, a Kentucky farmer, using FarmPAD.

“It’s very easy to use,” says Hoyt Choate, a farmer and president of FarmLogic, in Murray, Ky. “You know how you farm, so you know how our system works.”

Growers can record field operations, take digital photos and write notes on the screen, so the FarmPAD software can be used for food tracking. An optional addition allows them to send data immediately to FarmLogic servers or let the software send it automatically through the farm’s wireless network. “When you park in your driveway at night, you can let the unit charge and it will transmit the data for you,” he says.

The company has an add-on option for a sophisticated food tracking system coming soon and is planning an irrigation module before the end of 2009. There’s no charge for service or software upgrades.

The first unit, including the first year’s annual subscription, costs $4,150. Multiunit systems drop in price. Most of the initial cost revolves around the unit, which is a powerful computer. The annual subscription fee of $810 covers the online recordkeeping and data storage, and growers also have the option of the recordkeeping service only for $1,000 per year.

“Where we’re seeing one of the biggest benefits is that farmers never have to worry if their information is backed up,” Choate says. “It gives them a good sense of security.”

Coming up

The latest gadget for growers is RFID (radio frequency identification) tags, plastic tags that have been used for years as security devices in stores.

“RFID has been around for awhile, but it’s been very costly and not economically feasible,” Jones says. Although GPS/GIS systems are still more expensive to buy, some RFID prices are coming down, and while GPS bar codes have to be read manually, RFID tags are read automatically every time the produce changes hands, so they cost less to use.

Irrigation

Hanna Instruments’ HI10,000 is a fertilizer and pH injection and control system used by greenhouses and nurseries of all sizes.

PHOTO COURTESY OF THE CHEF’S GARDEN.
An Argus controller in a Chef’s Garden greenhouse.

“The system injects fertilizer and acid into the irrigation water,” says Jay Love, a greenhouse grower as well as an agricultural specialist and sales representative at Hanna Instruments. “Instead of volumetric dosing, it uses venturi-style valves. They reduce the number of moving parts and mechanical failures that can impact growers’ production and efficiency, but they don’t reduce water flow or pressure within the irrigation line.”

Growers can set EC and pH values for a variety of plants and inject a mixture of up to four fertilizers at once. The system has 10 programs, which can be triggered by the time, external switching and/or the flow. It monitors the EC and pH of the water and allows for an alarm component in case of an error or problem, such as a blockage. Hanna also has the ability to enhance the robustness of the acid injectors so it can withstand robust sulfuric and phosphoric acid without the grower having to dilute the acid.

“The system offers the right balance of simplicity to operate with technology for programming, data management and other advanced features,” Love says. Hanna technicians are on-site to assist with installation for up to two days at no extra charge. The systems start around $9,344 to $13,888.

Many irrigation systems can be remotely monitored and controlled, which can have enormous benefits for growers. “There’s a time in any business where you grow beyond the human factor,” Jones says. “If anyone wants to take time off, you have to use some kind of electronic control.” The Chef’s Garden uses remote monitoring for temperature, humidity and light level control in its 30 greenhouses, where they grow vegetable transplants for the field, culinary herbs and about 200 species of microgreens.

PHOTO COURTESY OF THE CHEF’S GARDEN.
Red Ribbon Sorrel, one of the culinary herbs grown at The Chef’s Garden.

“We’ve been using the Argus system for about five years,” Jones says. The controllers are hooked up to the Internet, so he can control the system from the airport when he’s traveling.

Alec Mackenzie, director of R&D at Argus Control Systems Ltd. in White Rock, B.C., Canada, used to be a commercial greenhouse grower of cucumbers, tomatoes and potted plants. “Back in the late ’70s, we developed a computer control system to meet our own complex control requirements,” Mackenzie says. “Over time,this system evolved into the ones Argus sells today.”

The value of an integrated control system can be divided into three parts. About one third is in the quality, accuracy and reliability of the control. The Argus system also has built-in diagnostics and support tools, including automated backup of all control system settings.

Another third comes from the data recording. The system keeps complete track of the operation and automatically saves all data for future reference. The last comes from the alarms package, which reduces the need for the grower to constantly be looking for problems in the nursery.

PHOTO COURTESY OF ARGUS.
Large greenhouse installation of Argus control system in Metrolina, N.C.

The system includes sensors and equipment wired to controllers located throughout the nursery or greenhouse operation, he says. These controllers are connected to a central PC that the grower uses for management and monitoring, and can be accessed over the LAN or Internet to provide remote access by growers or Argus service personnel.

It can be configured to suit a wide range of production systems and crops, from open field irrigation management to completely closed greenhouses and growth chambers (they even have a system installed at the South Pole).

The price ranges from around $8,000 to more than $500,000, depending on the complexity and size of the control requirements.

BaseStation2 software from Valley Irrigation in Valley, Neb., lets growers who use pivots control them from a computer in their office or in their trucks or tractors, says Ray Batton, territory manager for the company.

“Growers can do everything they can do at the pivots,” he says. “It’s pretty much all-encompassing.” The system can turn the pivots on and off, control the end guns, change the application depth, the speed and direction of the pivots and even move pivots, all with a few clicks of a mouse. It can also send alarms by cell phone or the Internet if there’s been a change in the status of a device, as well as maintain records and print reports.

XPHOTO COURTESY OF THE CHEF’S GARDEN.
A display of the heirloom and specialty vegetables grown at The Chef’s Garden.

The average BaseStation2 user has just four pivots, Batton says. The system can be custom-designed for each farm and takes about a season to learn how to use. It costs about $10,000 to install, and $2,000 to $3,000 to hook up each pivot.

“With the savings on gas, wear and tear on the truck and time from driving to and from the field, it pays for itself in a one to two-year period,” he says.

The Valley PanelLink works with BaseStation2 and allows growers to remotely monitor and control the system. It also sends messages to BaseStation2 if there’s been a change in status, and BaseStation2 responds automatically.

Batton sees more precision irrigation and automated controls for the future. “It won’t be long before the soil and the plant will tell the pivot when to turn on and off,” he says.

Considerations

“Everything coming out now is cheaper and more user-friendly,” Jones says. Still, technology only works as well as the people who use it. Data collection in the fields has to be completely accurate, and some of the technology takes a long time to learn because it’s continually evolving.

Cost is another factor. “It isn’t for everyone,” he says. “It’s going to cost you more. Whether it’s cost-efficient or not depends on the scale, scope and size of the
operation.”

The author is a freelance writer based in Altadena, Calif.