inside view: These investments yield major dividends

January 11, 2010
Written by Gary Jones
Agriculture has been around a long time, roughly 10,000 years by most accounts. Well-organized agricultural systems can be traced back to the Middle East from about 7,000 years ago. The most likely original source of agriculture is a region referred to as “The Fertile Crescent,” an area watered by the Nile, Euphrates and Tigris rivers1.

Agriculture systems developed somewhat slowly, until around the end of the American Civil War (1865). It was then that improved plow designs became commonplace, and mechanical seeders and harvesters were first developed. So began huge leaps forward in farming systems. As the Second World War ended, chemical fertilizers, pesticides and larger fuel-driven machines began to turn agriculture into industry, so completing what has become known as the “Agricultural Revolution” (a.k.a., the “Green Revolution”). In essence, therefore, agriculture owes its modern-day characteristics to developments in machinery.

I’ve not quite been around since the beginning of horticulture. But I suggest that advances in mechanization and automation have developed the industry more in the last 20 years than maybe in the previous 9,980 years, give or take a few harvests, of course. So, what better time to look at examples of technology that have changed the face of modern horticulture, and become the investments that every grower should consider. I asked a few colleagues for their thoughts.

Remember those hours spent making up barrels of diluted fertilizer before being able to hose it to the crops? Well, what are you doing with all the time you have on your hands now that you use a proportional injector? If you haven’t got an injector, think what you could be doing with more time. Take this to the next level of irrigation controllers for “automatically” watering, acid-dosing and fertilizing multiple zones and the grower finds new degrees of crop fertigation management.

Screens come in many types of materials and degrees of complexity. From simple thin sheets of clear polythene placed temporarily above the crop (for six weeks or so), to high-tech composite, woven-material moveable screens that are operated year-round by the environmental control computer. Apart from blackout screens, these are all there primarily for one purpose – to save energy. More recently being used in long-season tomatoes, these screens are revolutionizing early season growth control with significant savings in energy inputs.

These are not just glorified thermostats. While not needed for every greenhouse situation, environmental computers have taken crop control to an all-new level and changed the job of the grower in many ways. Nowadays, of course, they’re wireless. So even when you’re the other side of the country, your boiler can still talk to you.

For several years, I worked in large-scale bedding and potted plant production. Spring transplant time was a killer. Logistically and technically it was a challenge to get everyone on each of four separate transplant lines to perform to the same degree of uniformity. The first automatic transplant machine we installed was capable of transplanting 18 rows of plants into bedding packs simultaneously. It was liberating. It single-handedly reduced labour input from 20 people to four per line. More importantly, it produced a uniform crop because all plants were placed in the same place in the pack cells and to exactly the same depth. It paid for itself in nine months. We ordered two more.

I once heard it said that the ability of growers to input high concentrations of carbon dioxide into a crop produced the biggest single advance in yield performance of any recent technological development. This may or may not be so, but it has to be close to the truth. Being able to do this economically makes this one of the top developments of all time. Hence the widespread use of “heat dumps tanks” for larger-scale growers to generate CO2 economically during the day and heat during the night will have certainly added to their bottom line, probably with unprecedented, and unmatchable, short payback periods.

1 Poincelot, Raymond, Sustainable Horticulture: Today and Tomorrow. (2004). Prentice Hall, U.S.A.

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