Participants are back for the first day of EXPO 2021 at the Great Lakes Fruit, Vegetable and Farm Market. The event, December 7-9, will be held in person again this year, after being held virtually last year. (Matt Milkovich / Good Fruit Grower)

The Great Lakes Fruit, Vegetable and Farm Market EXPO is back in person this year, having been held in a virtual format last year.

Day one of the EXPO, held at the DeVos Place Convention Center in Grand Rapids, Michigan, included an educational session on fruit production technologies. The first speaker was Keith Mason, program and outreach coordinator for the Enviroweather program at Michigan State University. Enviroweather recently revamped its website and is expanding its network of weather stations.

Enviroweather provides weather monitoring to growers in Michigan and Wisconsin, rendering an important service to fruit growers. The program includes 105 weather stations spread across the two states. Many are clustered in large fruit-producing regions like Fruit Ridge, Northwestern and Southwestern Michigan, and Wisconsin’s Door Peninsula.

Growers who don’t grow in these areas, or growers who live in unique microclimates, might need more location-specific data collection, Mason said.

To address this issue, Enviroweather is expanding its network by adding personal weather stations that can be maintained by individual producers, providing data that can be shared by the entire network. The program is currently investigating five different models, and so far all are working well. They are easy to assemble and most are pre-programmed by the manufacturer. The models cost between $ 2,500 and $ 3,500, he said.

They plan to test the models in 2022 and design the necessary software and databases. They hope to ship the first user-owned stations in 2023, Mason said.

The next speaker was Kirk Babcock, an entrepreneur at Rantizo Solutions, an agricultural drone spraying company.

Babcock said drones have been used to spray pesticides overseas, but it’s a fairly new practice in the United States, he said.

Drones complement existing spray technology and are not a substitute for ground spray tools. As a relatively new method, the potential seems almost limitless. Operators continue to find new uses for them in different crops, he said.

The advantages of drone spraying include application flexibility (good for spot spraying, which is useful for specialty crops), no overuse of chemicals, and less exposure to pesticides.

The challenges include the size of the battery (they can only fly for that long), the size of the spray tank, and rapidly changing technology costs. Spray drone operators need certifications to fly drones and apply pesticides. They also need insurance, Babcock said.

Drone spraying technology has only recently been approved in the United States, and Babcock doesn’t have much experience spraying specialty crops. But based on other studies, drones can spray 5-10 acres of vineyard per hour. Costs can total $ 150 an hour, Babcock said.

Mark Ledebuhr of Application Insight spoke about the secondary impacts of implementing new technologies on the farm. Technology is a tool, but it’s not always a savior, he said.

Autonomous technology can do a lot of good on the farm, saving on labor and operations while increasing accuracy. Robots can operate 24 hours a day. They don’t skip lines. They don’t need to take the kids to soccer practice. They also reduce risk. When spraying, for example, robots can monitor environmental conditions and stop if they are no longer set. It’s harder for people to do that, Ledebuhr said.

But when you add new technology to the farm, you’re not just adding a piece of equipment. You add an ecosystem. You need an internet connection; you need to manage and store your data feeds. That means you need a dedicated IT person or hire someone to do it for you, he said.

Filling robot sprayers can get tricky. Machines must be loaded and maintained. Another potential problem: Do technology companies understand the demands and reliability requirements of your operation?

People in the tech industry are very smart, but most of them don’t understand agriculture. Does the company understand the conditions under which its machines will operate? Will the machines meet “severe industrial duty” standards, Ledebuhr asked.

Other risks include new insurance and underwriting requirements, and the fact that robotic systems could be exposed to hackers, he said.

The Great Lakes EXPO continues with sessions on December 8 and 9.

by Matt Milkovich