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Automating Ag

Less labor, more innovation in the fields and in the air

“Picture a Ferris Wheel,” advises Wishnatzki. “It picks the first berry, turns and spins, and picks the next one.” He predicts the machine will be available to growers by 2020. Initially, the robotic pickers will be offered at no cost to investor-growers. Later, they will be available for purchase by others.

Better yet, Wishnatzki believes the technology is adaptable to harvest other labor-intensive fruits and vegetables such as tomatoes, bell peppers, and table grapes.

Striving for Efficiency
Efficiency is another significant goal for growers, including Tanimura & Antle, Inc. in Salinas, CA, which purchased PlantTape, an automated transplanting system, in 2014. The technology was developed by a company in Barcelona, Spain.

“We took the original concept and made it better,” asserts Brian Antle, president of PlantTape USA. “We made it more robust for how we plant in North America.” The system uses a tape made of two layers of biodegradable tissue, filled with a mixture of peat and vermiculite to hold seeds. Special trays are used to wet the tape for germination, and once plants are viable, machinery pulls the tape from the tray, trims it, and places the transplants into soil.

Antle says each tray contains about 900 plants, double the usual amount for transplants. In addition, nongerminated tape can be stored for future plantings. Tanimura & Antle is currently using PlantTape on 25,000 acres. Antle estimates the system is six times faster than traditional transplanting, uses 97 percent less peat, 20 percent less fertilizer, 20 percent less water, and requires 80 percent less labor.

While PlantTape has proven successful, it will not work for all crops and there can be complications. Growing practices must be adjusted for the system to work. “If you give it the same amount of water and fertilizer, plants will grow too quickly and become too big,” cautions Antle.

Conserving & Adapting
Like Antle, Chadd Buurma of Buurma Farms, which operates a 700-acre farm in Gregory, MI and a 1,300-acre farm in Willard, OH, is concerned with preserving resources and being more efficient and resourceful.

For his part, Buurma has adopted the use of electrostatic spraying. “It uses less water and less chemicals,” he explains. “It does a better job of getting to the product: the leaf is completely surrounded, top and underside. We can reduce the amount of crop-protecting chemicals we use.”

Besides targeting the plant, the sprayer has other benefits such as reducing water use. Buurma says water use is now five gallons per acre instead of 20 for crops like radishes, beets, dill, and mustard greens. It also saves time. “You get more done in an hour if you’re not filling up with water all the time.”