Arizona farmers exploring new technology to increase efficiency

Mechanized automation is the future of the farming industry, and it is not that far away, according to a precision farming professor at the University of Arizona (UA).

“The whole aspect of smart farming is at the edge of some sort of breakthrough, from using remote sensing to collect data on crop growth and health to optimizing machinery (to make) smart decisions in the field, whether it be applying fertilizer or adjusting machine parameters to optimize production,” said Dr. Mark Siemens, an associate professor and specialist in the biosystems engineering department at UA.

Siemens has worked on several projects at UA related to automated farming machinery, including the development of an automated digging machine for lettuce production. Ryan Herbon, another agricultural specialist who worked on the project, began selling the “automated lettuce thinner” in 2012 through his agricultural engineering startup, Agmechtronix, founded in Silver City, New Mexico.

Because the crop thinner is mostly used for lettuce production, its biggest customers are in northern California and around Yuma in southwestern Arizona, regions that produce more than 90 percent of the lettuce sold in the U.S., Herbon told the Silver City Daily Press. Siemens estimated the Agmechtronix crop thinner can do the work of about 40 people.

“Traditionally, that cultural practice is done by hand, so workers would thin the crop or remove the excess seedlings using a hand hoe, and we developed a machine to do that automatically,” Siemens said. “That machine uses a camera to identify the crop plants and where those crop plants are located and then uses an herbicidal spray to essentially kill the excess seedlings.”

Lettuce is intentionally over-seeded with seeds placed about two inches apart, but farmers want a final population of one plant every 10 to 12 inches, Siemens said. The machine selectively thins the crop to the desired spacing, and it does it extremely quickly.

“This technology is having a tremendous impact,” Siemens said. “Thirty to 40 percent of the acres are being thinned mechanically or automatically.”

Another example of automated farming is the adoption of intelligent weeding machines. The machines use cameras to detect the crop plant and then open and close cultivating knives around the plant, a task called “in-row weeding.”

Many of these automated machines are still pulled by a tractor with an operator in the cab, although the San Francisco-based startup Farmwise is developing a fully-autonomous weeding machine. Automated tractors, on the other hand, are often less specialized — and less like a tractor than one might expect — to make it easier to adapt them for different purposes.

“It’s basically a power unit, so it has a diesel engine on it and four wheels, and then you would attach this power unit to some sort of implement like a planter or a spray rig… and then send that machine out to the field to do its work,” Siemens said.

Siemens said he is curious to see if the advantages offered by automated tractors lead to widespread adoption in Arizona. For one, those machines tend to be much smaller than more traditional modern farming equipment, which can sometimes be so heavy it compacts the soil and and damages the crops. Large equipment is also extremely expensive.

“The advantage that the manufacturers of these devices are typically promoting are the fact that in crops such as corn and soybeans, the equipment used for that type of crop production has gotten bigger and bigger overtime,” Siemens said. “At the same time, the expense for these machines has gotten bigger and bigger. So the smaller grower really can’t afford or justify the expense of these new machines. So part of the theory is, instead of having one large machine, you would have multiple smaller machines that would be lower-cost, and if you had a fleet of these and they were all autonomous, you would have some advantages.”

The innovative nature of these machines makes it difficult to predict how affordable they might become in the future.

“The economics are going to have to play themselves out for sure,” Siemens said. “The added cost for the sensors and whatnot is going to have to be offset by some sort of economic advantage, and the tremendous cost of large new tractors.”

One thing is for sure: automation is changing farming for the better, giving farm managers better data with which they can improve their crops and optimize their farm’s performance.

“The agricultural industry is really facing a labor shortage, so they’re having difficulty finding people for these arduous jobs and repetitive jobs, so currently it’s filling a niche where it is basically helping the labor supply,” Siemens said.

Graham Bosch

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