Technology offers options to farmers


Issue Date: August 14, 2019
By Kevin Hecteman
A weeder pulled behind a tractor works over a field of organic romaine in Soledad. The machine uses a camera to guide the wheels around the crop, while disks and knives remove weeds from around and between the lettuce. Such technology is catching on among farmers who, faced with employee shortages, are looking for ways to do more work with fewer hands.
Photo/Kevin Hecteman
Parker Jones looks over a touchscreen, which reflects data from an automated weeder hitched to a tractor.
Photo/Kevin Hecteman

(Editor's note: This is the first of a two-part Ag Alert® series on deployment of agricultural technology.)

Amid employee shortages, groundwater issues and other challenges, farmers in Monterey County and elsewhere are looking to the tech sector to help them bring their crops to market.

Parker Jones is one of those seeking to help farmers do more with less. Two months ago, he launched a custom-farming operation, Hermanos Automated Services, renting out a weeding machine that largely replaces hand labor in lettuce fields. It's made by British-based Garford Farm Machinery.

"It's all about the software," Jones said. "The plant spacing is different from plant to plant or line to line. We just enter the measurements in the computer, click 'Go' and run the machine. Really, it's not much to it besides that."

The weeder uses a camera mounted 65 to 68 inches above the ground to read the field and guide the weeder's wheels accordingly, Jones said as he prepared the machine to weed a field of romaine in Soledad. The weeder is towed behind a tractor.

"As it sees the plotline move, the tractor obviously can't move," Jones explained. "It has to stay straight. So if the plant lines tend to move, whether it's a direct-seeded field or if it's a transplanted field, the lines usually move at the same rate going left to right. The camera actually detects that and guides itself, so these wheels will turn when needed or stay straight."

As the weeder moves, its knives work between the plant lines and the disks work around the plants to get the weeds, Jones added.

The toughest crop to work with so far, he said, has been red lettuce.

"The difficult part about the red lettuce is that it's just a couple shades off of the soil," Jones said. "When the red lettuce starts to grow, it actually gets like a pale, light brown color, so it kind of looks like the soil. That's a difficult part for the camera—is it soil or is it a plant?"

The tracking technology has rapidly advanced, he said, noting that a year ago the controls in the tractor cab would have used a USB port and a keyboard. The latest version uses a touchscreen.

"Eventually, this will just be an iPad," he said. "You'll be able to just control it from the truck or preprogram into it, and your driver won't have to even touch this. You can do it from your house. That's where I see the tech going."

Jones said he tried selling the weeders at first but was unsuccessful, as buyers were put off by the six-figure price tag. A couple of friends suggested he start a service company instead.

"And it caught on like wildfire," he said. "We're getting calls from Washington, Oregon, Colorado, Arizona, all throughout California."

Tractor automation is the focus for Bear Flag Robotics of Sunnyvale, where Igino Cafiero, the company's founder and chief executive, works on self-driving technology. He exhibited his prototype, a standard tractor fitted with perception sensors and actuators, at a recent ag-tech event hosted by Merrill Farms in Salinas.

"We're really excited about ultimately answering, how can we grow more food on fewer acres at a lower cost?" Cafiero said. "That's what we're focused on, and that's really the pull from the growers. Having reliable autonomous machines to aid in that effort really, really does move the needle for the growers that we work with."

Bear Flag said it envisions being able to program tractor fleets remotely with routes and jobs in row-crop fields, orchards and vineyards, with the tractors capable of pulling plows or spray rigs. Cafiero said he's working on secondary-tillage operations in Salinas and has also run postharvest disking trials.

"We keep them dirty, man," Cafiero said of his prototypes. "Doesn't really do much good to have them sitting in the shops. Every time we can get out and be useful and be helpful, we do."

Farm technology also takes to the sky, with drones already used to conduct survey flights and deliver beneficial insects. One builder in Massachusetts, Kiwi Technology, is looking at aerial applications and brought its own oversized quadcopter drone designed for that purpose to the Merrill Farms event.

Jeff Feldman, Kiwi's chief operating officer, said farms in Japan and China have made use of aerial application by drone but that their fields, and therefore aircraft, were much smaller.

"We had to build something that's American size for an American-sized farm, which is on average about 400 acres," Feldman said. "So we built this in the U.S."

The machine weighs 1,200 pounds fully loaded, can carry as much as 50 gallons, he said, and can cover 30 to 80 acres per hour, depending on the size of the payload. The drone is supported by a ground crew; during a mission, the aircraft can land for a reload or for fresh batteries, then pick up where it left off.

"It's all computer-controlled," Feldman said. "We'll go over, we'll survey a field, we'll come up with a path. We'll talk to the farmer, make sure that's what they want—where they want coverage, where they don't want coverage, what areas they want to avoid, what areas they want extra attention to. It's very similar to traditional aerial application, but it's done in a very high-precision way."

Afterward, a report will be sent to the farmer detailing what was applied and where.

"It is a largely autonomous system, so that path is done each time, exactly whatever it is that you want," Feldman said. "It takes away a lot of human error."

Feldman said the project represents two years and $2 million of research and development, and a lot has been learned along the way.

"One of the questions we've heard from farmers continuously is, 'I don't know if what I paid for is what I got,'" he said. "We can very precisely tell you exactly what we did, when we did it and where we did it, because every component of this—from where it flies to the height it flies to the speed of the pump—is all controlled by computer, and all that data is downloaded."

Feldman said he plans his first commercial demonstrations next month, likely in the Salinas area, and hopes to launch commercial service in October.

(In the second part of the series, we'll look at data management on the farm, and a university's effort to educate a new generation of agricultural professionals.)

(Kevin Hecteman is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at khecteman@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.