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.
EXAMPLES OF TECHNOLOGY THAT HAVE CHANGED INDUSTRY
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
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.
ENVIRONMENTAL CONTROL COMPUTERS
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
1 Poincelot, Raymond, Sustainable Horticulture: Today and Tomorrow. (2004). Prentice Hall, U.S.A.
inside view: These investments yield major dividends
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