Sunday, 26 February 2012

Something New, Something Better

I did promise to try to be positive and constructive from time to time. Here's some very practical research being done in this region that could have very real benefits for the bottom lines of farmers, and the environment. It's a cliche, but this is win-win.  This is from an article I wrote:

The Right Spray, the Right Amount, in the Right Place

In a perfect world, fruits, vegetables and grains wouldn’t need pesticides.  This isn’t a perfect world, and even organic pesticides  can cause unintended consequences.  What if just the right amount of pesticide could be used, and even more importantly, just where it’s needed. That’s something that’s now possible.

Six years ago a small group at Oxford Frozen Foods were told by their boss, seventy-two year old John Bragg, to find some way to cut down on the company’s environmental footprint, in other words use less pesticides. The company farms over 12 thousand acres of wild blueberries, so the pesticide bill is pretty steep, but  Gary Brown, a field manager with Oxford,  says there was something else at work.   “One of his (Bragg’s) favourite sayings is, you people are not farming for me, you’re farming for my grandchildren.”

The company past the challenge along to  David Percival who heads up the Wild Blueberry Research Program at the Nova Scotia Agricultural College.  They discovered that  there is  technology being used in the Florida citrus industry that offered exciting  possibilities. This began a research collaboration between the University of Florida, and NSAC  that has now led to a workable combination of  conventional spray gear, and digital  cameras linked to a cab computer and comptroller that can turn on just the needed spray nozzles, even just one,  at just at  the right time. “We can just apply the agrochemicals where they’re required in the field, we don’t have to do blanket applications, and overall that’s a reduction in the risk right there,” says David  Percival. 

Both David Percival and Gary Brown credit  Dr. Qamar Zaman for moving the project ahead so quickly. Dr. Zaman, an agricultural engineer with training in Pakistan,  and England, had experience, including in Florida,  with what’s  now being called “precision agriculture”.   “We gave Dr. Zaman a real challenge” says Gary Brown. “Number one this has got to work, and number two it’s got to be user friendly because it’s going out into the farming community, and number three it’s got to be cost effective, it can’t be expensive equipment that the farmer can’t afford. He has accomplished all three.”  Brown says everything but the software package and comptroller  could be bought off the shelf at a good electronics store.

There are videos here   that show different  spray nozzles going on and off as the spray boom and tractor move along the field, applying the pesticide just where it’s needed.  The software is sophisticated enough that it can  distinguish between weeds and the main crop. “It can identify the weed by colour,  it can identify the weed by height,  or it can identify the weed by texture”, says Gary Brown. He has presented the research to the Canadian Horticulture Council which is made up of fruit and vegetable producers from across the country, and he says there’s a lot of interest.

NSAC has started the process of commercializing the technology. “Hopefully that’s something we will do through the coming year. With that being the case I would say the first generation of this should be available in two to three years” says David Percival. 

Oxford Frozen Foods used the technology on some of its commercial blueberry fields last Fall to control weeds.  Gary Brown says the savings in pesticide use and money were substantial.  “We’ve been able to reduce our chemical use in some fields by as much as sixty percent.”

No one can say right now what farmers will have to pay in additional cost  to purchase this technology for their spray gear, but some think it should be around seven thousand  dollars.  That would be a very quick pay back for a large operation using pesticides that are becoming increasingly expensive. 

The technology is obviously most suitable for perennial crops like wild and high-bush blueberries, and other fruit trees, but David Percival says with its GPS capability it could be used to prevent any spraying in sensitive environmental areas on any farm.  “It allows us to work in fail safes. For example if there is a watercourse in the area, we can build in that we need a buffer of so many meters” say David Percival.

“Precision agriculture” has always had the feel of expensive high technology to it,  really only suitable for very large farming operations. The developers of this technology hope the savings it generates will more than offset the reasonable cost, and if it lessens the “environmental footprint” as well, then the benefits will be even greater.

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