Agronomy at a Higher Resolution


Data is abundant, but labor is not. Edge computing could bring helpful big data to the field. These are among the key drivers of promising technologies discussed by experts in the field on the “Leveraging Precision Agriculture” at the sold-out inaugural Organic Grower Summit (December 13-14, 2017 at the Monterey Hyatt Resort & Spa).

Moderated by Robert Lambert of And Now U Know and The Snack, the panel featured three people at the forefront of practical ag technology, including Bart Walker of Pacific Ag Rentals (PAR), Ian Justus of Driscoll’s, and Matt Denninger of Trimble Ag Solutions, who introduced the concept that precision agriculture is agronomy at a higher resolution.

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Walker’s goal is to bring make new technologies readily accessible to farmers with less risk by renting, leasing or even contracting with PAR to deploy new technology on the farm through PAR Technology Services. He sees PAR almost as an incubator for new technologies, vetting them out prior to offering them. “There’s a lot of technology out there,” said Walker. “But I want to find something that saves the farmer money.”

Walker has also launched AGCess – a venture that puts new technology in the hands of farmers and provides innovators access to the people who can use it. One of the innovations offered through AGCess that seems tailored to the organic grower is Robovator – a robot weeder. Robovator uses cameras to identify what’s crop and what’s a weed,  and cultivates out the weeds with miniature hydraulic hoes. The piece of equipment can do the work of 10 humans in the field, and potentially  save farmers $30,000 per month. 

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Justus, an agronomist, has been working on Driscoll’s Agrobot, the robotic strawberry harvester. “The first time I saw it,” said Justus, “I thought it was never going to work. It was missing the good stuff and taking the stuff you didn’t want.” The machine has been evolving the past five years, and is now more sophisticated with on-going work on software and vision systems. Three-dimensional cameras are able to visualize the berry spatially and see the back side of the berry, where it tends to be less ripe. Agrobot is currently able to pick across seven rows in one pass, with 160 “hands.” Driscoll’s is currently working out the maintenance program for Agrobot, how to best get the harvested fruit out of the field and what the right growing system is for optimal Agrobot efficiency.

Driscoll’s is also looking at precision technologies that let them understand the need for and carefully control the application of water and fertilizer, so crops are getting exactly what they need, when they need it, and where they need it.

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Denninger said Trimble Ag Solutions supports growers with three key strategies: a network of “agri-coaches” (agronomists), auto guidance for tractors, and implementation of precision agriculture. The company is able to not only provide the “where” and  “what” of the issue the grower is dealing with, but the why and how to solve it. One tool Trimble offers to the grower is a detailed understanding of what’s happening in their soil. “My nickname for it is a four-foot MRI of your soil,” said Denninger.

While these technologies may sound too expensive and complicated for the smaller organic farmer to deploy, PAR and Trimble offer means by which smaller growers can benefit. PAR Technology Services lets growers contract for a PAR employee to bring a piece of PAR equipment – Robovator, for example – out to a specific field for a specific task. Denninger said that for as little as $150/month, their cloud-based system is helping smaller growers simplify the demands of reporting for customers and other stakeholders, while also allowing them to capture data in real time.

Big data can be useful in agriculture and these companies, among others, are doing it now and working toward even more utility and efficiency. With the increasing abilities of edge computing ----analytics and knowledge generation happening at the source of the data rather than at a centralized location--- more information will be available to growers in real time to support the entire farming operation. 

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