Dec 16, 2014
Precision agriculture poised for growth

An agricultural engineering professor, in the forefront of high-tech innovation, believes there are significant advantages for specialty crop operators who pursue and adapt precision agriculture technologies.

The bottom line – impacted by such trends as a dwindling labor force – will continue to drive the growth of those approaches.

“There are great opportunities for precision agriculture technologies for specialty fruit and vegetable farmers because we’re talking about high-value crops,” said Scott Shearer, chairman of Ohio State University’s Department of Food, Ag and Biological Engineering. “Management of big data and precision management techniques will be very important in the future.”

On the other hand, the higher amount of acreage seen for such crops as corn and soybeans has thus far attracted more focused and widespread use of high-tech sensing, monitoring and cropping mechanisms, Shearer said.

But that pattern could shift.

“The benefit from precision agriculture may be more profound in specialty crops than any other,” Shearer said. “If you’re affecting productivity levels by 20 or 30 percent on a high-value crop, and can aggregate enough acres, that’s substantial on a high-value crop. There are a number of things converging that will change opportunities for specialty crop production in the future.”

He said technologies are in a more distinct growth mode where the number of acres is increasing, such as wine grape vineyards, where there is “a critical mass of acres. That’s where we’re seeing growth in it. There are remote sensing situations where there is use of those to control production for vineyards. When you look at vineyards in more humid regions, the potential for disease related to yield is substantial.”

Remote sensing is used to gather information about an object without being in contact with it. The two most common methods of remote sensing are aerial photography and satellite imagery.

Plants have a distinct reflectance pattern, thus enabling researchers to interpret this pattern and gather information about such conditions as plant health, moisture content and nutrient levels.

“With grapes across the country, there are opportunities due to the diverse nature of those crops,” Shearer said. “In California, with the critical acreage of nuts and fruits, there may be some justification there.”

In California’s Salinas Valley, where there are opportunities for several lettuce crops per season, there is “even more need for the technologies.”

“Everybody saw things before in precision agriculture to manage fertilizer spatially,” Shearer said. “There’s been a mix of success for a variety of reasons. It involves the ability to collect soil samples and project what fertility rates might be between sample sites weighed against sampling density. The ability of the application equipment to carry out the prescription to determine variable-rate fertility has had some mixed results.”

For some specialty crops, Shearer said, micronutrients “may be an area where there are substantial opportunities.”

More remote management

Remote sensing should enable growers to do a much better job managing water, with thermal imaging, detecting crop stress and controlling the application of supplemental moisture in many regions of the country. The acceptance of evolving technologies requires an adjustment in approach and mindset, Shearer said.

Inroads being made through use of measuring tools for such products as biotech growth enhancers and regulators will become increasingly important, Shearer said.

“Timing, placement and being able to meter the right qualities offer some parallels and intersections between biocontrols and the use of technology,” he said.

“If we can tighten up, by the use of precision technologies, our use of crop protectants beneficial for the environment and producers, it goes to the bottom line. There are multiple benefits of technology doing a better job of controlling inputs.”

Those approaches become even more crucial based on market forces where growers’ customers are demanding more safe and sustainable food.

“It’s very important to look ahead with a field to market initiative,” he said. “There’s an interest on the part of retail chains such as Walmart to define what sustainability means. Sustainability in the food production system needs to be consistent with consumers, and with processors and growers. There is a need to equate sustainability with the cost of production.”

Shearer said he does “see an opportunity for robotics in specialty crops. Substantially coming down is the cost of image and image processing systems for control of automation in the field. The cost of automation is going to come down.

“Looking at specialty corps, it has to do with variety,” he said. “Can you create harvesting systems that will harvest multiple crops? If we get to that and can harvest multiple crops, what we’re going to see is more operations in more countries.”

A contributing factor to the growth of technology involves the cost of labor.

“It’s not only the cost of labor, but the supply and social factors in some respects,” he said. “You can point to some growers in California and some requirements involving worker safety and exposure to pesticides as being a driving force. At the end of the day, if you automate production, you have to be able to compete with the local cost of labor, with a number of things going up. We also know in some regions of the country we end up having migrant laborers who have been willing to take those jobs and have been very productive, but they’re transitioning into service sector jobs at a greater rate than in the past.”

Companies in the business of developing new technologies also must assess whether an ample market opportunity exists for products targeting specialty crops, he said.

“The cost of developing technology has to be recouped. It’s not like you’re going to sell 100,000 harvesters to specialty crop producers. Even with grain production, they may only sell 30,000 machines a year. The numbers will be quite a bit lower.”

He said companies such as Blue River Technology, a Sunnyvale, California, start-up, are developing some products targeted to specialty growers.

“One of the things they’re doing is they’ve automated the process of thinning lettuce crops,” he said. “They’re using vision-based technology to do something historically done with manual labor.”

Blue River developed the LettuceBot, a precision thinning system that uses cutting-edge robotics and machine-learning algorithms that make plant-by-plant decisions to increase yield – ultimately earning more value from the exact same acre.

“It’s cost effective in beginning to compete with alternative, manual labor,” Shearer said.

Autonomous Solutions Inc. (ASI) of Logan, Utah is a robotics company Shearer identified as a working on “supervised” autonomous solutions for pesticide applications for orchards and vineyards.

“I’ve seen some of the prototype equipment, and the stuff works,” he said. “There are some really neat solutions coming.”

Imaging and imagining

He said through use of such evolving technologies as unmanned aerial vehicles (drones), “once you show growers remote-sense imagery, they begin to see their management results in that imagery. It doesn’t matter what crop. When they look at it from a view from above they see things that are a direct result of their management practices. It begins changing the way they begin to approach crop production in a field setting.”

Shearer said a selling point is “when the imagery will be cost effective. Unmanned aerial systems have the ability to return high-resolution, multi-banned imagery. If it’s in the order of a couple of dollars an acre for overflight, for some growers I think that is a game changer.”

He said price points for sophisticated cameras mounted on the aerial systems have declined to below $50,000 after historically being “half a million to three-quarters of a million dollars.”

The Federal Aviation Administration “holds the key to unlocking technology for growers,” said Shearer of the agency charged with determining the legal scope of commercial drone use in the future.

Technology will increasingly enable growers to adapt to climate challenges. It’s a concept that’s already prevalent in corn and grain production, Shearer said.

“It will all be about matching the plant genetics with the soil landscape and the local climatic conditions,” he said. “In the future, we will be able to do a much better job matching genetics with local soil landscapes and the historical and changing climate in that region. There are some natural ties.

“We will see a lot of cropping systems in the future where data becomes essential to how management techniques might change in terms of climate in that region.”

He said other breakthroughs will come when researchers, some at Ohio State University are doing this currently, use sensing techniques to “visualize what’s happening below the soil surface, as opposed to most of the sensing now that looks at what’s happening above the ground.”

“It looks at the root mass in this case, and tells another part of the story in terms of crop performance,” Shearer said. “There are many different developments regarding how to manage nutrients and soil structure. Having a clearer picture of what’s happening with the plant below the ground will drive a lot of things.”

Gary Pullano

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