Ag summit displays new, future farm gear
Field demonstrations of new and developing farming equipment dominated the first morning of the Southwest Agriculture Summit Wednesday, with about a dozen devices in various stages of development and marketing going on test runs at Arizona Western College.
Leigh Loughead, agriculture science manager at AWC and the announcer for the demo event, said any implements which take over labor-intensive tasks, like in-row cultivators and precision weeders, were getting a lot of attention from the growers in attendance.
“With the minimum wage going up in California, the minimum wage going up in Arizona, they’re looking at machines that can do the same thing as a full labor crew can do with minimal cost, the cost of the driver,” she said. “Automation is going to become very important in the future as we try to provide affordable food.”
Greater difficulty in finding labor crews to hire is also fueling the push toward automation, she said.
Some of the machinery was experimental in nature, including a spray-based precision weeding machine exhibited by Dr. Mazin Saher, a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Arizona’s Yuma Ag Center.
He uses a water-based marker on lettuce seedlings before they are transplanted into the ground. When unwanted weeds pop up around it once planted, a wheeled device which can detect the markers sprays herbicide on the surrounding plants with 1-centimeter accuracy, leaving the crop untouched.
Saber said he hopes to complete development of the machine for sale to a manufacturer in about a year.
Yuma Ag Center Associate Professor and Ag Mechanization Specialist Mark Siemens hosted demonstrations of an automated,
“With the minimum wage going up in California, the minimum wage going up in Arizona, they’re looking at machines that can do the same thing as a full labor crew can do with minimal cost, the cost of the driver. Automation is going to become very important in the future as we try to provide affordable food.”
in-row cultivator. or “Robovator,” purchased by UA and the University of California, Davis through a federal grant. It is manufactured in Europe and uses camera-based machine vision to detect crops and hydraulically-powered blades to slice out in-row weeds.
“If you’re under a lot of weed pressure this is probably a good fit for an in-row cultivator,” he said, while if they aren’t much of an issue there might not be much of a need for it.
The universities are making the machine available for demonstrations on local farms and getting feedback from growers as part of the grant program.
Idaho-based GenZ Tech- nology’s G360R was one of the more unusual products on the field, a vegetable sprayer which uses a series of white hoods to dispense pesticides in a concentrated manner, then sucks whatever chemical doesn’t land back up, recycling it for use farther downfield and eliminating most pesticide drift.
The machine’s air system creates a “tornado effect” which allows the chemical to be blown onto all sides of the crops, and is especially good for reaching mildew, GenZ President/CEO Grant Thompson said. The force of the air can be dialed from 0 to 150 mph, he said.
A G360R runs about $45,000 to $55,000, Thompson said: “It’s a little beyond what a standard sprayer would cost it, but not by too much.”
The noisiest demonstration was also the lowest-tech, with an air cannon and other pyrotechnics intermittently firing at the end of the field to show different methods of “bird harassment,” or nonlethal methods to get birds and other wildlife to steer clear of fields in production.
Christopher Carrillo of the U.S. Department of Agriculture said “bangers” and “screamers” are shot off from a starter pistol, and they have much of the same crackle and whistle of full-blown fireworks. A propane-fueled air cannon can be used in the absence of farm employees, with periodic blasts from the cannon. These can be effective, but could create other issues when used near residential areas.
However, the birds eventually learn to ignore the “harassment” and go back to pecking at the vegetable crops, so growers need to switch up their methods.
“Bird harassment, it’s a full-time job for one person to change this type of behavior,” Carrillo said.
Wednesday’s other activities included classes on food safety, welding and the possible effects of new federal gas regulations on farm fleets.
Today, the second day of the Southwest Ag Summit will have a keynote panel on the Colorado River water supply, breakout sessions on water, integrated pest management, healthcare reform and more, with the perennially soldout Harvest Dinner closing out Thursday evening. An “advanced ag” tour will be held Friday morning.