Artichokes are important to Ocean Mist Farms. It is one of the company's premier crops. Chris Drew, product manager for Ocean Mist, told our Salinas Valley press-tour group, "The land near Castroville, California is ideal for growing artichokes." Standing in a veritable sea of waist-high artichoke plants made it hard to disagree with Drew.
Experiencing a major drought
Yet, there was a look of concern on his face. Enough for me to ask if there was something wrong. "Not yet, but..." said Drew. "The Salinas Valley is experiencing serious drought conditions, getting only 15 inches of rain in the past three years." Drew went on to explain that Ocean Mist Farms has been doing everything possible to conserve water, from irrigating at night to using drip-line irrigation — costly and labor-intensive activities.
Technology to the rescue
However, that alone was not enough. Drew, a graduate of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo with a degree in crop science, is one of the modern-day farmers: conversant in things digital, and willing to apply cutting-edge technology to improve his craft. To help Ocean Mist Farms adapt to the drought conditions, Drew partnered with John Deere and installed Field Connect, a prototype sensor array, in the artichoke fields. The data Drew and researchers at John Deere found is reshaping how Ocean Mist goes about farming and conserving water.
The mention of a networked Internet of Things (IoT) device sitting in a field piqued my curiosity. Even though it was not part of the tour, I convinced Drew to show the group one of the sensor arrays. The Field Connect (shown to the left) had a small solar panel and two antennas sitting on top of a 12 inch by 12 inch waterproof box. The two antennas, one a satellite uplink and the other a cellular backup, explained how data from the sensor array made its way to John Deere servers.
Field Connect sensors
I asked what was inside the box. Drew mentioned since the device was a prototype he was not privy to the specifics of the hardware or operating system. However, he was able to give details about the sensors. John Deere offers several sensor packages, including a miniature weather station, soil temperature, air temperature, soil electro-conductivity, soil-moisture content, leaf-wetness, and solar-radiation level.
The sensor package Drew and Ocean Mist decided on included soil-moisture content, soil electro-conductivity, soil temperature, and air temperature. What is visible of the soil-monitoring probes (image to the right) is the yellow cover in the middle of a young artichoke plant located a few feet away from the main unit.
Soil-moisture content: Ocean Mist's soil moisture-content probe is 48 inches long. The probe is capable of measuring moisture content at various distances below the surface. Drew pays particular attention to the moisture level at root depth — if that drops below a certain point, it is time to add water.
Soil electro-conductivity: This sensor helps Drew decide when the fertilizer has reached root depth. Fertilizer being a salt changes the conductivity of the soil as it penetrates deeper into the ground.
For example, when Drew applies dry fertilizer, he knows how much water is required to get the fertilizer to the roots by watching the sensor output. The reverse is also true: watching the conductivity change over time tells Drew when it is time to fertilize again.
Data analytics plays a big role
All the data from the sensor arrays is first sent to John Deere, where the information is analyzed, manipulated, and made available on web servers. Via a secure web application, Drew can check all the Ocean Mist parameters on a dashboard similar to the one below.
Drew then mentioned something interesting, "Farming is all about averages." Before Field Connect was available, Ocean Mist relied on 10-year averages to make its decisions. Now, Ocean Mist can react in near real-time. Drew cited the daily soil-moisture depletion function as an example. This particular information, as it trends up or down, helps Drew determine when to schedule the next irrigation.
The main advantage of Field Connect
I asked Drew what he felt was the main advantage of using Field Connect, and he said, "Time. Saving time by not having to dig holes to see the soil's moisture content." Next I asked Drew if Field Connect provided any surprises. He said, "Having all that data was overwhelming until I could associate dashboard readings with what I knew was happening in the field."
Next tech innovations
I asked Drew what other technologies were in his future, and no surprise, IT and IoT devices will play a major role.
- Harvesting: Packaging and cooling the product down to 34 degrees F within four hours is paramount, as is being able to track product from the field to the grocery store — even to the point where Ocean Mist knows who picked the produce. (Much of this is already in place.)
- Full-on water management: Sensors and remotely-controlled equipment would allow staff to manage irrigation from a central location. Alarm systems alerting individuals through mobile devices would allow automated irrigation without fear of water loss or crop damage.
- Equipment maintenance: Rather than guessing, maintenance could be scheduled by reviewing the output from equipment-mounted sensors that would then become part of the digital maintenance record.
- Soil prep, fertilizing, and planting: By amalgamating data from Field Connect, equipment sensors, GPS information, and field meteorological data, all field activities are optimized.
Note: Notice the white fog/mist off in the distance in first Field Connect image? That is coming from the ocean and occurs like clockwork every morning during the summer, hence Ocean Mist's name.
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