From the Rose Garden at the White House, to the laser-leveled fields of Yuma, AZ (home to 90% of this country’s winter leafy greens), data analysis, precision/digital agriculture, and drones are hot topics of conversation. Already familiar to commodity growers, the technology applications are catching on in the vegetable-growing community.
There’s a lot to work with in Arizona, according to February 2017 figures from USDA that show close to 20,000 farms and ranches representing 26 million acres with the average farm size about 1,300 acres.
Steve Alameda of Yuma’s Top Flavor Farms, a grower for Tanimura & Antle, brings a 40-year career background to the table in trying to keep up with technological innovations he can use on his 2,000 acres.
“Despite what’s new, it still goes back to basics,” he says. “Doing a better job of land preparation, disking, leveling, breaking up soil, and using plant tape or spacing out pelletized seed for mechanical thinners. If you don’t continually step up your game and make sure the basic conditions are right, a lot of what you do with new technology goes for naught.”
Labor shortages are a key driver.“It all goes toward using less people (because we have less laborers available now and fewer in the future) and minimizing cost to produce uniform crops for higher yield and quality,” says Alameda, who also is President of the 200-member Yuma Fresh Vegetable Association.And while technology may appeal, the bottom line is often a factor in deciding yay or nay.
“Today’s equipment is so strong and efficient, you can get so much more work out of the gear,” he says. “I want to add some of this new methodology like new tillage implements, computer system monitoring, and new-style uniform sprinkler heads, but I can’t afford to do it all at once. A lot of things you do, you inch along. You need to have an open mind about things, like drones for instance. I’m using them right now to fly the perimeter of my fields and scare off the birds.”
The Types of Precision Methods Being Used in Yuma
It would take multiple volumes of an agricultural encyclopedia to list and explain all the options brought forth recently, but here are some highlights of precision methods being used in the Yuma area:GPS-Driven Technology.
“GPS is used on just about everything,” says Paul Brierley, head of the Yuma Center of Excellence for Desert Agriculture (YCEDA). “Rows that are perfectly straight allow closer cultivation — enough room between the plants and the knives to minimize waste.”
Crop-Scouting Drones. Lightweight unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), flying 40 feet high at just under 30 miles an hour, can cover 100 acres in 20 minutes and easily survey a thousand acres a day, capturing hundreds of images. The airborne eyes help discover subtle changes in crops like nitrogen deficiency or lack of irrigation.
Driverless Tractors. Computer-controlled tractors with precision guidance systems automated through GPS direction. As guidance technology advances, self-propelling tractors will add “intelligent obstacle avoidance.”
Automated Steering. Compacted soil cuts yield, but following the same wheel tracks reduces compaction between crop rows. Automated tractor and combine steering technology is now being extrapolated to implement wheels.
Fleet Management. Larger growers have copied commercial trucking technologies to keep track of their fleets via computer screens. Telematics shows where vehicles are at all times.
Irrigation Management. Remote irrigation management platforms are used to drastically simplify and automate use of irrigation scheduling methodology, helping growers decide precisely when, where, and how much to irrigate.
Sensors. Technology is leap-frogging in real-time sensing from vehicle-mounted devices that control the application and accuracy of things like chemicals and fertilizer, testing for a needed quality and immediately changing amount, percentage, speed, and depth.
Laser Leveling. Uneven land does not auger well for water absorption. Flat surfaces mean water reaches every part of the field with minimal run-off or water logging. “Just about every crop in Yuma is laser leveled,” says Brierley, “with no runoff or tailwater in flood irrigation — everything gets the same volume of water at the same time.”
The Many Ways to Use Drones
For Brierley, the airborne eyes in the sky could be the answer to a lot of problems. He calls drone science “the future of agriculture,” at least to the point where data collection is required and drones are one way to get real-time data.
“Drones can collect a ton of data. It’s what you do with it that counts, building decision tools for precision agriculture. Somebody has to take that data and make decisions on where to plant, how to water, what soil amendments to use and that data can come from drones, satellites, even soil sensors and field monitors.”
And don’t forget historical data as well as real-time input. Where you’ve been and what you’ve done previously helps lay out what you’ll be doing in the future — a combination of historical data and predictive modeling based on that data’s history.
Brierley says his center, supported by both growers and shippers in the produce industry, can help. The Yuma Chamber of Commerce says the YCEDA group “brings its expertise and resources to finding solutions to the most pressing problems facing desert agriculture,” things like challenges to crop production, insect and pest disease infections, labor shortages, drought response, and food safety concerns.
“Forty percent of production in the world is on arid land, so we’ve become the perfect test situation to solve larger issues, and the solutions we come up with here can apply to desert agriculture anywhere,” says Brierley, who grew up working his family’s diversified central California farm. “Yuma’s produce industry might be a small slice of the agricultural pie, but we can try new things here that can be scaled to a larger segment of agriculture. And the more problems we collectively solve for industry, the more support we will get from them.”
Allied in Brierley’s optimism about drone and unmanned aerial vehicle use in agriculture is Curtis Pate of Yuma’s Agtegrity Agronomy Consulting, who sees multiple uses of UAV systems to bring tangible ROI — everything from early disease or stress detection to yield estimation and inventory management for different crops.
Pate consults on 10,000 acres of diverse crops concentrated in Arizona and California’s Imperial Valley, with its year-round cropping climate. Soil mapping plays a prominent part and precision agriculture comes into play here with quick-read soil fertility results that identify stress, oftentimes because of salinity. Using tablet devices, he can move through fields and view weak zones that need troubleshooting provided by the overhead imagery.
“I have to provide some type of precision ag offerings to my clients — or get left in the dust,” he says. “For instance, I’m currently flying a weed detect for grass in an alfalfa crop. It’s streaky and spots, but I can create a precision map from my drone imagery and send in a spray rig to apply herbicide only where needed.”
Field Tests Will Determine the Future
Playing it forward, Pate says the developing technology has to be tested to determine its value.
“Most everybody is on board to a limited degree already, but until we get it in the field and see what it will really do for us, we can’t make a broad brush statement that you’d be crazy not to use these new ideas.
“One of the biggest applications of technology is what we’re doing with guidance tractors. Go back a few years and it took one really good tractor guy who could bust a field open so others could hold the line. Nowadays there’s less than an inch variance on a half-mile run with seed and fertilizer remaining at a constant spacing. There’s no magic involved. We can operate as a science, rather than art.”
One big driver of precision agriculture is a push to mechanize because of an ominous black cloud: an industry worry about a dwindling labor force.
“This isn’t like a factory where you have perfect conditions for widgets on an assembly line. We have labor issues, weather events, diseases, and bugs to deal with. The more uniformity we can come up with — same-size crops, same maturity times, straight rows, similar moisture application, the more uniformity that can be achieved, the easier it will be to automate and mechanize production,” says Brierley.
Precision agriculture doesn’t just happen with the purchase of a GPS unit or a yield monitor, it occurs over time as new levels of management intensity are adopted in the areas of soil type, hydrology, microclimates — modifying techniques to meet within-field variations affecting crop growth.“It’s one thing for researchers to build these systems, but to get them integrated into precision agricultural application represents another level — the trust of growers who may be wary to leave decisions to electronics,” says Brierley.
Adds Alameda: “So many variables go into the equation. It’s everything working together with precision and efficiency to make new technology palatable … or I may be out in the field with a shovel as I’ve done for the last 40 years. You need to have an open mind.”