Technology

Researchers say they’ve pinpointed individual spud plants infected with potato virus Y with 90 percent accuracy, using hyperspectral cameras mounted on drones. 

Donna Delparte, an assistant professor of geosciences at Idaho State University, and graduate student Mike Griffel have successfully tested a “computer-learning” algorithm they developed to tease out PVY from spectral imaging “background noise,” such as field variability and unrelated crop stress.

“Our premise was to look at all of these wavelengths of light the human eye can’t see and look for differences between healthy plants and plants infected with PVY,” Griffel said, adding their images had leaf-scale resolution.

Griffel said the project detected disease well before potato crops reached the row-closure stage, far earlier than people can spot symptoms of PVY by scouting fields. 

To develop their algorithm, they compiled crop data in fields over three seasons, ending in 2016. The researchers first analyzed fields from the ground with a high-tech camera capable of recording 100 bands of the light spectrum.

After studying the images, they selected the 15 most useful bands for identifying PVY based on its unique light reflection. Delparte programmed more basic hyperspectral cameras mounted on drones to detect those bands while surveying the same potato fields from the air. | READ MORE

 

So far in the project, the drone has collected imagery from about 50 potato fields in New Brunswick. Photo courtesy of Bernie Zebarth, AAFC.

Drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), are becoming increasingly popular with crop growers as an easy way to take a look at their fields. Now, researchers are fine-tuning the use of imagery from drones as a more advanced tool for precision management of Canadian potato fields.

This work with drone imagery is part of a major five-year project to boost potato yields. “About three years ago, Potatoes New Brunswick and McCain Foods Canada came to me and said they were having issues in terms of potato productivity in Eastern Canada,” says Bernie Zebarth, a research scientist with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) at the Fredericton Research and Development Centre. “The data across North America show a slow but steady average increase over time in potato yields, going up about five hundredweight per acre per year. But in Eastern Canada, that is not happening – the crop insurance data for New Brunswick suggest our yields are either stagnant or perhaps even decreasing slightly over time.

“That’s a serious concern for industry. For example, a lot of New Brunswick’s potato production is for French fries for export. To export, you have to be competitive. If you start losing yield, then you become less competitive. So they asked us to work with them to see what could be done about it.”

The project aims to increase yields by addressing the variability in productivity within potato fields. “The project has three main objectives. First, can we develop ways of mapping the variability in plant growth and yield in potato fields? Second, for the areas of the fields that are not performing well, can we identify why? And third, can we overcome those yield limitations?” Zebarth says.

“In Eastern Canada, precision agriculture is an exciting new area for us, and this is part of what we’re doing in the project,” he adds. So, they are trying out tools like drones and yield monitors to map in-field variability as a first step towards managing that variability through precision agriculture. According to Yves Leclerc, McCain’s director of agronomy for North America, managing in-field variability is key to improving yields and profitability for potato growers. “We need to understand profitability not only at the field level but also the subfield level, and manage fields at that level. It is no longer enough to manage a field based on the average conditions; we need to be more precise [to achieve a field’s full yield potential].”

The project’s initial phase, in 2013 and 2014, took place in New Brunswick only. For 2015 to 2017, the research is also taking place in Prince Edward Island and Manitoba. For the first two years, Potatoes New Brunswick, McCain Foods Canada, AAFC and New Brunswick’s Enabling Agricultural Research and Innovation program funded the project. With the expanded project, two additional agencies have come on board: the PEI Potato Board and the Manitoba Horticulture Productivity Enhancement Centre Inc. The project’s lead agency is Potatoes New Brunswick.

To try to remedy yield limitations, the project team is looking at a wide variety of practices such as compost applications, fumigation, fall cover crops, nurse crops, furrow de-compaction and, in Manitoba, variable rate irrigation.

“We’re looking at everything from drones and drone imagery, to the thousands of holes we’re digging to look at soil compaction, to compost applications, to soil salinity – everything. We want to make sure that there’s literally no stone unturned,” says Matt Hemphill, executive director of Potatoes New Brunswick. “There is no one-size-fits-all and no magic bullet in this process because we have such variability in soil and weather conditions.”

Drone imagery – advantages and hurdles
A drone with a specialized camera and advanced software can be used to map in-field variability. The drone flies over the field in parallel passes to capture the entire field in a series of overlapping images. The camera can be set up to capture particular wavelengths of light; for instance, near-infrared wavelengths may be of interest because healthy plants reflect more near-infrared light than stressed or dead plants. So a near-infrared image of a field could potentially be used to identify patches where the plants are stressed due to problems like disease or low nutrient levels.

“For instance, if we could use the imagery to identify the parts of a field that aren’t deficient in certain nutrients, then a potato producer wouldn’t need to waste time, energy and money in putting fertilizer products on those parts of the field,” Hemphill says. “Imagine, instead of broadcasting X number of tonnes per acre of lime across the whole field, you maybe only have to apply it to 25 per cent of the field. You can imagine how quickly those savings would add up. The same goes for other input costs.”

Zebarth explains that, before drones became available, the main way to map vegetation patterns was with satellite imagery, which has advantages and disadvantages compared to drone imagery. “One advantage of satellite imagery is that it’s calibrated [so the imagery data is easier to use in advanced analysis]. But there are two big problems with satellites. The first one is that you can’t control when they capture imagery of your field – they only fly over the field every so often, and they can’t see through the clouds. In New Brunswick, we have a lot of cloud cover. The other disadvantage of satellite imagery is its low resolution; a ‘pixel’, an individual point of information, represents an area of maybe five by five to 30 by 30 metres in size [on the ground]. So we’ve never used satellite imagery very much to look at crops here in the East.”

Drones avoid those disadvantages. The user can choose where and when to capture the imagery, as long the operator flies the drone safely and legally. (Anyone operating a drone in Canada must follow the rules set out in the Canadian Aviation Regulations and must respect all federal, provincial/territorial and municipal laws related to trespassing and privacy.) Cloud cover isn’t as much of an issue for drones because they fly below the clouds. And drone imagery is at a much higher resolution, about seven to 10 centimetres, depending on how high the drone is flown.

These advantages are making drones popular with crop growers. “People are already using drones, mostly for qualitative assessment. Drones are fantastic for that,” Zebarth notes. “One such application is to have a visual look at your field. For example, if you fly the drone when the crop is beginning to emerge, you can really see the field’s variability – where the crop is already emerging and doing well, where it is just emerging, and where it hasn’t emerged yet.”

Another qualitative application is to target field scouting. Zebarth explains, “In the image of the field, you might see a patch that looks different. The imagery won’t tell you what the problem is; it will just tell you something is there. So you can go out to the field and look at that patch to identify the problem.”

However, the project team wants to take drone imagery a step further. “We’d like to get to where it’s a more sophisticated tool,” Zebarth says. “We want to determine quantitative differences, like trying to develop relationships between the imagery and things like yield and leaf area index, and so on.”

McCain Foods has its own drone, camera and software for this type of geo-referenced field mapping, and it has trained two of its employees to operate the drone, one as a pilot and the other as a spotter. For the project, they are flying the drone over commercial potato fields in New Brunswick. So far, they’ve collected imagery for about 50 fields.

They fly the drone over each field several times during the growing season. The first flight is when the soil is still bare, so they can look for differences in soil moisture and drainage across the field. The subsequent flights are timed to capture the crop during early and late emergence, mid-season, and early and late senescence. Zebarth says, “So we’re looking at: do we have variation in the soil, the early canopy growth, and the canopy die-down.”

One hurdle in their quantitative use of drone imagery is to correctly stitch together all the individual images from the drone’s flight over the field. “The drone might take perhaps 50 to 100 different images of the field. Those images have to be pieced together, which is called ‘mosaicking.’ If you have a discrete object, like a house or a fence in the images, mosaicking is not too difficult because you can easily find that object in the different images and align them. But if all you have in the image are rows of potato plants, there is not much to align with,” Zebarth notes. “There is mosaicking software to do that, but it’s not perfect. So we’re working with one of the drone companies to figure out how to get the images almost perfectly lined up so you can get down to looking almost at the [individual] plants.”

A second hurdle relates to calibration. “The drone’s camera is actually measuring how bright the light is in different bands; it is taking pictures that have red, green and blue, like a regular camera, but it may also have near-infrared. So it gives you a number from one to 255 in each of those bands, but it is just a relative number. To calculate things like vegetation indices, such as the NDVI [normalized difference vegetation index], you can use a relative brightness to get a relative value of the NDVI. However, you have to convert it to a reflectance value to get a true value for the NDVI that you can compare across fields or measurement dates. That’s where it has to be calibrated,” Zebarth explains.

The researchers are making good progress with overcoming both of these hurdles. Plus, they are testing over 20 different vegetation indices to determine what each index is sensitive to and which ones work best for potato fields in New Brunswick.

“For instance, one index might be mostly sensitive to how much coverage there is of green leaves, whereas another one might be more sensitive to how much chlorophyll is in the leaves,” Zebarth says. They’ve already found that the NDVI, a common index for measuring vegetation cover, isn’t the best choice for potato crops. “For potatoes, the NDVI reading initially goes up as the canopy develops, but after the canopy reaches a certain density, the NDVI becomes insensitive.” Some of the other indices don’t have that drawback.

Once the researchers complete this work in the coming months, they’ll have a much better idea of how they can use the drone imagery. The information from this work could also help agronomists, crop advisors and growers with an interest in quantitative uses of drone imagery in potato production.

“In the long run, drone imagery is going to be a tool to add to our arsenal of tools, for sure,” Leclerc says.

Progress on agronomic findings
One of the project’s key agronomic findings so far is the degree of variability in potato fields. “We are seeing a lot more variability in our fields than we had expected. Although some fields are relatively uniform, other fields have pretty dramatic variation,” Zebarth says.

The results so far indicate that, in New Brunswick, much of the variability is due to the soil. “What we think has been going on is a gradual decline in soil health over decades,” Zebarth says.

The wet spring in 2013 emphasized some of this soil variability. He says, “When we visited the field sites, we would see places in some fields where there wasn’t a single plant. It looked like problems with poor drainage or loss of soil structure or low soil organic matter. So that is why a lot of the remedies that we’re trying are ways to improve soil health, like compost applications or changing crop rotations.”  

Leclerc notes, “The biggest challenge is determining the underlying causes of the differences in productivity. In some cases it’s fairly easy to pinpoint, especially [with the wet conditions] in the project’s first year, but in other cases it is a lot more difficult. We are examining that aspect with very precise soil and subsoil analysis.”

Once a field’s variability is mapped and the causes of its differences in productivity are understood, then the field’s management zones can be defined and managed. “We can work on those management zones to improve the limitations, which are most likely soil-related. Or, if that cannot be done, the idea is to manage the different zones differently. So perhaps we might back off in terms of inputs on the lower productivity zones and reallocate those resources to the higher productivity zones, and look at changing the spacing perhaps on the higher productivity zones to take advantage of their higher yielding capabilities,” Leclerc says.

After the trials with the various management practices are completed, the project team will analyze the results to see which practices provide the most consistent benefits, how effective they are, and under what conditions they are most effective, and to determine which options make the most economic sense.  

“At the end of the day, we need to look at the input costs and profitability,” Hemphill says. “The outcome needs to work for the growers and the processors in order for the industry to remain sustainable.” 

 

March 14, 2016, Prince Edward Island – Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada entomologist Dr. Christine Noronha has designed a simple and environmentally green trap using hardware store items that could be a major breakthrough in the control of wireworms, an increasingly destructive agricultural pest on PEI and across Canada. 

The Noronha Elaterid Light Trap, or “NELT”, is made with three pieces - a small solar-powered spotlight, a plastic white cup and a piece of screening. The light is set close to the ground to attract the source of the wireworms, the female click beetles that emerge from the ground in May and June. Each of these beetles can lay between 100 and 200 eggs that produce the larvae known as wireworms. In a six-week test with 10 traps, more than 3,000 females were captured in the plastic cups, preventing the birth of up to 600,000 wireworms. The screening prevents beneficial predator insects from being caught in the trap.

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s Office of Intellectual Property is trademarking the trap name and design and work is underway to find a manufacturer who might be interested in mass-producing the trap.

The NELT is the latest in a series of wireworm control measures being developed by a team that includes Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, the PEI Potato Board, the PEI Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, the Pest Management Regulatory Agency, Cavendish Farms, the PEI Horticultural Association, growers and consulting agronomists.  Wireworms live in the soil and drill their way through tuber and root crops like potatoes and carrots. The PEI Potato Board estimated wireworm damage to the province’s potato crop alone at $6 million in 2014.

To learn more about the NELT, be sure to sign up for an exclusive webinar with Christine Noronha, hosted by Potatoes in Canada magazine, on May 12. 

Oct. 15, 2015, Canada – UAVs, UASs, drones – call them what you will, but these aerial vehicles are making news every day – and there is so much more to come.

Yes, there’s a new frontier on the verge of exploding on the commercial scene and drones will be used by a variety of businesses including aerial firefighting, security, agriculture, law enforcement and more.

So, what’s in it for you? How can you capitalize on this emerging trend and what does it mean for your business? How can you utilize UAVs and what are their benefits and limitations? What are the regulatory realities and how will they change in the future? And just exactly what will the future hold?

These are just some of the questions Wings and Helicopters magazines – sister publications to Top Crop Manager – will attempt to answer in an upcoming webinar entitled UAVs – The Value Proposition.

Eric Edwards will explore these topics and offer insightful information on how to capitalize on the UAV trends during the webinar on Nov. 10, 2015, EST. As with the first very successful UAV seminar hosted by Wings and Helicopters, $25 gets you a seat – and a chance to ask – your most pressing questions. Edwards will be digging into the realities and perceptions around UAV utility and economics, in several civil and commercial sectors. 

Register here.

Sept. 14, 2015, PEI – A drone was flying high above an Island potato field last week as part of a 4-R Nutrient Stewardship demonstration of how the technology can help farmers improve crops and reduce the amount of fertilizer they use. CBC News reports. | READ MORE

 

Rain is indiscriminate when it falls from the sky; Mother Nature doesn’t ignore low spots on fields just because they don’t need moisture. But for potato growers, technology is making it possible to even out moisture levels to allow for more equitable crop development. No more do pivots have to circle the field, applying the same amount of water on every sector whether it be a drier hilltop or a moisture retaining former creek bed.

Although not new technology, a Nebraska company’s Variable Rate Irrigation (VRI) system is gaining notice in Canada. Valley Irrigation advertises that VRI will “make all areas in your field profitable, reduce runoff, and increase water and chemical application efficiency.” The company also says the equipment is relatively easy to use and will make managing irrigation less stressful.

However, a grower who has been using the system on his Alliston, Ont. farm for two years now claims there is still much to learn and understand once the equipment is installed. Adequate rain during the two years since he began using the equipment did not give Homer VanderZaag the opportunity to fully experience the VRI technology.

“I know there will be a value in using this system, but the last couple years have been wet, so we didn’t see the full benefit,” VanderZaag admits. “Our first measurement of success should be yield improvements across the field.” He explains the system allows growers to divide a field into zones and a computer program can tell the pivot when to apply moisture in a zone. Fertigation can be controlled in the same manner, and late blight and tuber rot can also be better managed in years when the crop receives irrigation exclusively.

James Wolsky of K & T Irrigation in West Fargo, N.D., sells Valley’s VRI technology and he understands what VanderZaag has been facing, but he also sees the equipment helping in wet years as well. “We’ve been in a wet cycle for many years here, but we see the variable rate irrigation helping to control excess moisture,” he explains. “Our customers are not putting water on where it isn’t needed. We know every field is not the same, so we use the variable rate technology to prevent over-watering potatoes.”

Even in wetter years there might be periods where some moisture is needed on higher zones, and the pivots can be programmed to water where needed while leaving the lower spots alone.

“The hard part with VRI is writing the prescription for the pivot,” VanderZaag admits. “You take what you know about the field and translate it into a map that represents the needs of the field. You can overlay maps to help, but you need good aerial imagery and topography knowledge. It can be daunting.”

VanderZaag says soil test results help with fertigation, but there is no tool that estimates how much moisture is available in the soil. He feels knowing moisture levels for the various zones would make it easier to program the equipment and to manage water more effectively. He also says VRI would be most useful to growers who have many zones across a field, from highs to lows; a perfectly flat field would, conceivably, require the same level of moisture across all zones.

Wolsky agrees. “We have an example of a grower who has a sand ridge in a field, so he’s not putting water on the lower, wetter, heavier soils, but only on that ridge.” By using the variable rate technology, he says, there can be a savings in water use, and the equipment can also be set to a variable frequency drive to put more water where it is needed most.

According to Valley Irrigation, VRI can save water because only the amount of water that is needed will be applied. By changing the application depth, run-off can also be reduced and over-watering will not be an issue. There are two types of VRI available – speed control of the pivot as it crosses the field, and zone control that allows for fine-tuning the amount of moisture given to the crop. The company literature says the zone-control technology is most helpful in challenging fields divided into more than 5000 zones. The speed control programming works best when the field variability can be captured in pie-shaped wedges.

VanderZaag says in his most complex field, he has 2700 zones with his 1100 foot pivot covering an 80 acre circle. He explains he can set the equipment to irrigate more frequently knowing that each acre is getting the correct amount at any given time. High sandy spots receive more water, while low areas can be limited or even left dry as insurance against large rain events. He believes his average yield will improve overall with regulated moisture. Plus, disease and pests will be managed more effectively.

“This is amazing technology and, once the programming is done, it is easy to use,” VanderZaag says. “It was a challenge at first, but it’s a great opportunity to improve our crop output. I like the fact that I can manage my crop’s moisture more effectively.”

VanderZaag did a retrofit on existing equipment to install VRI, but complete systems can be purchased with the technology in place on the pivot. Then, all a grower needs to do is input the field’s “personal” information into the computer program.

Not all fields are the same, but variable rate irrigation technology offers growers multiple options for managing moisture. When Mother Nature isn’t hitting the high spots adequately, VRI can make up the difference.

 

 

 

 

Aug. 20, 2015, St. John’s, NL – Newfoundland’s Nuclear Seed Potato Propagation Facility recently showed off the first crop of its nuclear seed potatoes grown from plantlets produced at the facility.

July 20, 2015, New Annan, PEI – P.E.I. Potato Solutions recently opened up its new facility to agricultural industry stakeholders and local media, demonstrating how the company cleans, sorts and scans potatoes for metal contaminants. The Journal Pioneer reports. | READ MORE

 Michele Konschuh and her team were able to produce four crops of seed potatoes, each one more successful than the last. Photo by Michele Konschuh/Crop Diversification Centre.

Mystery surrounds animals, people or things that appear out of thin air and movies scare us with a villain appearing out of the mist. But there are some very positive and non-threatening aspects to using thin air and mist in potato production. With the support of Alberta potato growers, Michele Konschuh may have fine-tuned a better, more efficient, financially viable means to produce seed potatoes.

Konschuh, a potato research scientist with the Crop Diversification Centre in Brooks, Alta., has used aeroponic technology to produce seed potatoes in a chamber that only requires the roots of the plants to be misted regularly. The PIP 200 Potato Incubator was shipped to Canada from NorthBright Technologies in Chicago. The company had previously developed a prototype called the PIP 100, but having heard about the system, seed growers in Alberta were keen to try the technology. The PIP 200’s arrival posed some challenges.

“We had to put the equipment together when it arrived,” Konschuh says, because there were no precise instructions for something that was still in development. Then, she and her team had to figure out how the equipment worked. “The first crop was humbling and we planted it in winter, which was not the best scenario, because we struggled to get the roots developed.”

The aeroponic system includes three chambers stacked on top of each other. The top chamber is open to the greenhouse and the tops of the plants grow upward into carbon dioxide and sunlight. The middle chamber hosts a plug that holds the tissue cultured plantlet. On the bottom is a fabric layer the roots push through into a dark, open area that is misted to feed the plants and keep them alive. The learning curve was not smooth, but jagged, as the team had to learn how to set up the chambers. The fabric the roots needed to push through was inadvertently substituted for something too heavy. Preventive maintenance procedures were learned through trial and error. Watering issues also became a challenge because, like any field situation, too much or too little stresses plants, causing yield and quality issues.

“We don’t know much about growing potatoes ‘in captivity,’” Konschuh says. But, faced with a tight schedule, she and her team were able to produce four crops of seed potatoes and each one was more successful than the one before.

“The potato growers did not expect this to be a long-term project, it was merely designed to assess a potential commercial unit,” Konschuh says. “We learned more each time we grew a crop, but we didn’t solve fertility issues and we need to understand root systems better.”

The provincial government recently purchased the PIP 200 and, on recommendations by Konschuh, the manufacturer is making adjustments to create the PIP 150 that will be more “user friendly.” She says the assessment did remove some of the risk that commercial seed potato growers would face if they decide to use the equipment themselves. In the four crop trials, she learned the system does work and that it can be economically viable.

After the first couple “less than stellar” crops using the equipment, the researchers learned and improved, hitting a high of 15 to 20 marketable seed tubers per plant. But, Konschuh admits, in the last trial only one variety was grown. In the first round, 14 varieties were grown and, she explains, each variety had its own idiosyncrasies, making it difficult to manage the fertility and water requirements to ensure each crop was managed successfully.

“We increased yield 10 times over what can be done in a greenhouse using traditional production methods,” Konschuh says. “We used less nutrition and water to produce the seed as well. The cost of producing seed potatoes was reduced based on lowering our variable cost per tuber. I think, realistically, a seed grower using this system could pay it off in about five years.”

The cost of production, according to the researcher, was 35 cents per tuber compared to the usual 75 cents accrued by the average grower. The team was able to grow some of their production in a field with no apparent differences when compared with traditionally grown seed. However, Konschuh suggests, the cost of seed will most likely not be lowered, but the availability of seed would ensure the province’s seed potato supply.

While the future of seed production in an aeroponic system appears very positive, there is still much to learn and Konschuh admits that it is a less forgiving system than hydroponics. “With aeroponics, you only have about three hours to save the crop if your water pump quits,” she says. “You also need good light and we need to understand fertility and manage plant density better.”

Even though Konschuh no longer works directly with the PIP 200, she sees many possibilities to use it as a research tool to study how tubers develop in the field, to understand how root systems feed plants, and to learn how to better control diseases.

Finally, the assessment of the PIP 200 is offering seed growers a new option and, with proof the system is viable and cost-effective, the future of seed production in Alberta could be changed. Konschuh believes what she was able to accomplish in only four crops is giving growers enough information to make informed choices about whether to take the leap and purchase the equipment. In the near future, producers may be growing tubers out of thin air in a misty environment and that’s not the least bit scary.

 

 

 

April 11, 2014 - Glenn and Deb Harrison, who run a broiler chicken operation outside of Uxbridge, Ont., are pleased to talk about how recent changes to the lighting used in their barns has resulted in many benefits apart from energy savings alone. Last year, the couple participated the (now closed) cost-share program called Farming Power, which provided farm businesses with funding to improve on-farm energy efficiency in the Greenbelt.

Before applying to the program Glenn took his time and did his research carefully to find the bulbs with the best fit for his two barns. He tested about fifteen different types of Light Emitting Diode (LED) lamps, and states that there were four reasons he went to LED rather than compact fluorescent lamps.

First and foremost, he says, was the electricity savings. The LED lamps are expected to save approximately 119,246 kWh or $19,000 per year at $0.16/kWh. Apart from the energy savings and economic benefit, the LED lamps last longer than fluorescent lamps: 15,000 hours for a compact fluorescent versus 25,000 for LED lamps. "Changing the lamps is just one less job I will have to do," he adds.

In addition, Glenn points out that the LED bulb is self-contained, meaning he will not have to remove them when he washes down the barn, making cleaning easier. And, while compact florescent lamps lose their brightness over time, the new LED lamps do not.

"When I was considering making the switch to LED lamps the benefits were just too obvious," he remarks. "So I jumped in and made the plunge."

Since transitioning to broiler chickens in 2002, Glenn and Deb have been looking for ways to optimize production and their bottom line. They have installed solar walls on both barns to pre-heat the incoming fresh air and, since lighting is one of the biggest energy users of all, he and Deb see this Farming Power project as a very bright idea.

Glenn reflects how he found applying for the Farming Power program through the Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association to be straightforward and simple. As stated previously, his electrician was involved in the application process to verify the amount of energy savings the new lamps would provide. The pair is quite satisfied with the results as well and sees the benefits the lights will have for the farm's bottom line. Knowing Glenn, Deb smiles when she says that she expects he will continue to explore and research other energy saving projects in the future.

Overall, the lighting project implemented by the Harrisons will result in an expected 91 per cent reduction in energy consumption of on-farm lighting, the highest amount of energy savings of all the projects completed under the Farming Power program. The Greenbelt Foundation is pleased to present the Harrison's with a $2,000 prize to applaud them for their efforts as one of the top energy saving farms within the program.

"Greenbelt farmers, like the Harrisons, are on the cutting edge when it comes to innovations that help protect the environment and help grow their business," said Burkhard Mausberg, CEO of the Friends of the Greenbelt Foundation. "By partnering with the OSCIA, we are providing the solution to keeping our environment healthy, while also supporting substantial, long-term economic benefits for farmers."

The Farming Power program provided cost-share opportunities for farm businesses in the Greenbelt to implement select Best Management Practices focused on lighting, refrigeration, cooling and heating upgrades to increase energy efficiency within agricultural operations. The program was funded by the Friends of the Greenbelt Foundation and delivered though the Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association in the 2013 cropping season.

 

Managing resources is becoming more and more important as reserves diminish around the world. Meanwhile, agriculture is expected to feed a population of nine billion by 2015 using those diminishing resources. Identifying tools that help manage resources in a cost-effective and constructive way is equally challenging. A water management system introduced to Canada a couple of years ago is proving to be a successful way to use the resource more effectively even though research has been sporadic to prove how or why it works.

The Omni Enviro Water System claims to improve crops using magnetized water and anecdotal evidence is showing the company’s claims are valid. Based on the principles of molecular physics that say water molecules will bond together creating clusters that are too large to be absorbed by plant cells, the Omni Enviro system breaks up the clusters using magnetic fields and makes them smaller and more easily absorbed by the soil and the plant.

“It certainly does something, but I can’t say how,” admits Wayne Baerg, a crop consultant from Winkler, Man., who suggested three of his clients try the system in irrigation systems for potatoes or in a sprayer. “I did talk to growers in the United States before I recommended it.” Now that he has seen the system work over a couple years, Baerg says he would suggest growers try it, but they will have to determine whether it is cost effective for their operation.

The system requires a magnetic unit be installed on the water line and, according to Garry Fenton, the Canadian president of Omni Enviro, the magnetic field breaks down the water molecule clusters that will then permeate the soil better. “We have typically seen a minimum of 10 per cent improvement in water usage,” Fenton says. “The plants become more hydrated, hard water is broken down to micronutrients more available to the crop, which cuts down on the need to add micronutrients in the fertility program and, ultimately, it will improve the condition of the soil.”

Baerg says he saw an improvement in the soil at one client’s farm. Faced with high salinity, the grower decided to try Omni Enviro on his irrigation pivot. The grower left a wedge-shaped check in the pivot’s revolution and Baerg says the difference in the soil quality was measurable.

“We also found the crop didn’t use as much water with this system,” Baerg continues, “which can be a cost saving. In fact, you may need to learn to use less water.”

Another of Baerg’s clients used a two-inch-diameter Omni Enviro unit on a sprayer and discovered that his herbicides were more effective. The grower saw weeds controlled that were not on the herbicide’s label and those that were on the label had a higher control than normal. “It was dramatic,” admits Baerg. “The unit paid for itself more than once after one season of use in the reduction of chemical needed.”

“Using a unit on a sprayer cuts down on the amount of water needed,” Fenton adds. “We have also seen that treated seed has improved emergence and yield.”

Omni Enviro units are sold according to the diameter of the plumbing with the cost starting at $400. A sprayer may need a two-inch unit, while an irrigation pivot may require a six-inch or eight-inch unit. The units will fit any irrigation or spray system.

There is ongoing research on the value of using magnetic fields to improve water for crops, but much of it is being done in Europe. So far, there has not been much recently published research in North America. However, as Baerg reports, his clients who have used the system are seeing a difference and they believe in it without the empirical evidence to prove that what they are seeing makes scientific sense.

“We didn’t really see any significant yield improvements from using the units, but the improvement in the soil and the effectiveness of the herbicide application made a difference in the crop,” says Baerg.

After being impressed by what he saw in cornfields during a trip to Kansas, Fenton decided to introduce Omni Enviro to Canadian growers. “A corn farmer in Kansas with 10 irrigation pivots put a unit on his worst field and saw a yield increase of 34 bushels per acre.”

Vegetable growers across the United States have given testimonials to the value of using Omni Enviro, so it may be one of those tools that science has yet to fully explain. It could be similar to Grandpa complaining that his  lumbago acts up every time it rains: there is no scientific evidence to prove a connection, but who is going to argue with Grandpa? If Omni Enviro does, in fact, improve water usage, it could be another step towards successful management of a diminishing resource.

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