Cloud, Analytics and Sensors Support Organic FarmBy Eileen McCooey | Posted 2017-01-11 Email Print
High-tech sensors, a mobile app and cloud-based analytics give an Ohio family farm the tools it needs to manage irrigation and maximize output.
Centuries-old agricultural practices combined with up-to-the-minute technology are helping a family farm thrive in an ever-more challenging environment. Chef's Garden, a 300-acre farm in Huron, Ohio, is using an irrigation management system and cloud-based analytics to improve yield and conserve resources.
The rich soil in this Lake Erie area is ideal for farming, and maintaining the health of that soil is an essential job. "We're dirt farmers," says Farmer Lee Jones, who runs the farm with his father, his brother and other family members. "We farm soil, not crops. If you put crops into healthy soil, you will get better produce."
To achieve that, Chef's Garden devotes half or more of its acreage in any given year to so-called cover crops that rebuild soil nutrients through plant-based material. That once-typical practice is rare today. "We don't believe in chemicals and synthetic products," Jones says. "We follow many organic practices but prefer the term sustainable farming."
The Jones family started up Chef's Garden more than 30 years ago, when they lost their original family farm and adopted a new model: selling upscale produce to high-end restaurants. "We focus on the top end of the market, where chefs demand flavor and quality," Jones says. "We also provide unique specialty products like edible flowers."
To satisfy its demanding customers, the farm strives for maximum flavor per mouthful. "Weak plants don't taste as good as healthy ones," the farmer explains, "so reducing stress on our crops is critical." Healthy plants are also less susceptible to disease and insects, he adds.
Water can reduce the stress on crops, but only if it's done at the right time, in the right amount. Managing irrigation is also important for economic and conservation reasons, given water shortages.
"In the future, wars will be fought over water, not oil," Jones predicts. "We could use pond and river water, but we are concerned about chemical runoff from other properties, so we buy all our water from the city, which is expensive."
Implementing an Irrigation Management Solution
In 2016, Chef's Garden became the first farm to implement Verizon's irrigation management solution, which is typically used for vineyards. The farm's focus made it the perfect candidate for the system, which is designed to support sustainable farming of high-value crops.
In less than one day, Verizon technicians installed a weather station that monitors the local environment, along with 10 sensors over a five-acre section of the farm. Four infrared sensors, which look somewhat like telescopes, continuously measure the temperature in the plant canopies, while three temperature probes and three moisture sensors monitor soil conditions.
A base station set up in a semi-trailer on the farm collects the data and sends it in real time to the cloud, where analytics are run. Results are immediately available on a dashboard that's accessible on the base station and on mobile devices using a special app.
"You can be in a field looking at a plant, pull out your phone and get information in a way that makes sense," Jones says. It required only two hours of training to familiarize the staff with the system.
Prescriptive and Predictive Analytics Help Drive Decisions
Cloud-based analytics—both prescriptive and predictive—provide a complete picture of a crop's health and stress level. "We can see patterns, including today's readings and historical data, such as averages and extremes," Jones notes. The data tells the farmers how much and when to water to maintain acceptable stress levels across the life of the crop.
Users can set up custom alerts delivered via text or email. For example, when soil temperatures rise above 110 degrees, many seeds won't sprout, Jones says.
"By watering the soil in the evening, we can lower the temperature to 90 degrees or less, and some seeds will sprout overnight," he explains. "We can also use old-fashioned methods like installing mesh shade cloths that limit the heat but let light and water through to plants."
It's too soon to see the full effects of the system. In fact, water usage has actually gone up because of severe drought conditions, but Jones has observed a noticeable difference in stress on the plants, and he expects to see efficiencies over time.
"We are still in a learning curve and haven't begun to understand the full magnitude of this," he says. "We have a lot to learn—and we will, by experimenting with things." It's likely that Chef's Garden will expand usage of the irrigation management system.
"We're excited and very encouraged," Jones declares. "We've seen enough to know that this is the future of farming."
Photo of Lee Jones courtesy of Verizon