March 16, 2010

PRECISION in the POTATO FIELDS

MATT WICKENHEISER

— By

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John Ewing/Staff Photographer: Monday, May 19, 2008....High-tech farming techniques utilizing GPS technology are allowing potato farms such as the Green Thumb Farm in West Fryeburg to increase production. A tractor kicks up a cloud of dust as it prepares a field for planting of potato seed at the farm.

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John Ewing/Staff Photographer: Monday, May 19, 2008....High-tech farming techniques utilizing GPS technology are allowing potato farms such as the Green Thumb Farm in West Fryeburg to increase production. Farm Manager Earl Towle oversees all farm related activities at the farm.

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Staff Writer

FRYEBURG—The John Deere tractor trundles across a dusty brown field at 3 mph, planting potato pieces every eight inches, in a perfectly straight line under a perfectly blue sky.

At the end of the row, Jeff Merrill grabs the steering wheel, punches a red button on a computer touchscreen and turns the tractor, which continues down a line kept true by satellites 12,000 miles overhead. The global positioning system driving the tractor could keep it going in a straight line ''all around the world,'' Merrill says.

''You think driving a tractor is just that,'' says Merrill, who's worked for Green Thumb Farms for five years. ''Now you just get in and make sure the computer is driving it where it should be. Takes a lot of work out of it, that's for sure.''

The GPS system allows workers to plant the potatoes with sub-inch accuracy -- as each row stretches across the field, it won't vary left or right by more than an inch. Another computerized system puts the tuber pieces exactly eight inches apart, at exactly the same depth. The whole system is called ''precision agriculture.''

The straight rows are beyond pretty, neat and trim, for Don Thibodeau, president of Green Thumb, who watches Merrill's slow progress across the field. They're a hopeful sign that he can use technology to become more efficient and compete in an increasingly challenging global economy.

Maine's potato farmers are part of the state's heritage and hardscrabble mystique. Kids in The County bent over potato baskets, hauling their loads to barrels dotting fields -- it's an antiquated but archetypal image. Most people know that those days are gone, but often believe the industry is slowly dying, too.

Instead, Maine's surviving potato farmers are embracing technology and science to thrive. Farmers have always had to be smart to make a living -- it's just too hard to survive otherwise. Today, they're applying that acumen to global markets -- like Dan Corey up in Monticello, the first U.S. farmer to export seed potatoes to Brazil.

''I got Blackberries on the side of the belt -- it's just what you do,'' says Corey. ''I don't sit still too long. With change generally comes more income. I've got customers that are always looking for new and better ideas.''

They're embracing concepts like precision agriculture, which replaces a system where drivers eyeball a field and try to keep the rows as straight as possible. In that system, slight variations at the beginning of planting compound across the field. If you're a half foot off at one end, it adds up across the field and suddenly rows are too close together, or too far apart, wasting space. Those variations mean lost acreage, damaged product, and wasted fertilizer, time and fuel.

With precision agriculture, farmers know those potato plants are in an exact straight line, no matter how small they are. Thibodeau plans to reconfigure his crop sprayers to drop fungicide and insecticide precisely on each dime-sized plant, instead of covering an entire field.

His farm sprays every five days for blight, so the savings add up quickly.

As the planting season unwinds, farmers traditionally cultivate the fields three times, digging them up and bringing the plants closer to the surface. Because the planting is so accurate with the new system, Thibodeau plans to hill the rows once.

Every time he can take a tractor out of a field, it means less fuel, fewer manhours, reduced compaction of soil and damage to crops. And that means money is being saved.

The GPS retrofit system was a $50,000 to $60,000 investment, says Thibodeau.

''We're pretty confident we'll own it this year'' with savings, he said, meaning it will pay for itself.

SQUEEZING OUT EFFICIENCIES

At least 100 growers out of Maine's 380 potato growers have adopted some form of GPS technology in their systems, estimates Don Flannery, executive director of the Maine Potato Board.

''This allows us to utilize our land, assets and people more effectively. In return, using these technologies has allowed us to ship a higher quality product to our market while at the same time being better stewards of the land,'' says Darrell McCrum, co-owner of County Super Spuds in Mars Hill. ''We're not wasting land out there anymore.''

McCrum says that technological advances in the last 25 years have mostly been in the potato storage part of the business. Advances in climate control now allow Maine's farmers to keep their product stored for 10 months, sending them to processors as needed.

But in the last five years, tools such as GPS steering systems have come into play, bringing other parts of the business into the 21st century.

The technologies allow farmers to squeeze efficiencies out of their operations. It's timely, says Thibodeau.

The cost of fertilizer is up 32 percent over last year, and fuel is up 20 percent, explains Megan Patterson, crop specialist at Green Thumb.

Part of what's driving up fertilizer costs is competition from farmers in India and China, she says.

Patterson, 23, has worked for Green Thumb for about a year, and taken the lead in understanding and implementing the GPS system.

RECOGNIZING THE POTENTIAL

It's young people like Patterson who will help farms fully understand and realize the potential the technology represents, suggests Thibodeau.

For example, Green Thumb now takes soil samples across its fields, finding out where to add different components such as nitrogen, lime, potash, etc. If the farm pushes its technology investment further, it should be able to hook up its harvesters with GPS and instruments that constantly measure the crop yield as it works the fields.

The system should be able to analyze where crop yield was low, and why -- checking with soil samples. Then, when the field is planted the next year, the system would automatically add the ingredients needed for better yields.

Using more advanced technologies has changed how he hires, says McCrum.

''When our farm hires new employees, the biggest asset we look for is the ability and willingness to accept change,'' he says.

Jim Dwyer, a crops specialist with the Cooperative Extension Service at the University of Maine, says he's seen acceptance of the statistical models the extension has put out to potato farmers in the state.

Cooperative Extension has worked to put out computer models for farmers, helping them with when to apply fungicides, analyzing weather patterns as they may impact pest treatment and other aids.

''It kind of takes the hunch out of it, where there's some science behind it,'' says Dwyer. ''Our growers are very interested in having good, solid science to make decisions by -- especially when you look at the pressures they're under now.''

With any new technology, there can be some resistance. Anyone who's used a GPS system understands its sometimes hit-or-miss nature.

On a recent weekend, Thibodeau's planters struggled through a Saturday morning, the GPS system acting up. Planting went without a hitch on Sunday.

Then the system declined to cooperate Monday morning.

Earle Towle, Green Thumb's farm manager, checks over the. wiring on a base station, a powered antenna station that provided communication between the tractor and the satellites.

Merrill, in the tractor, keeps losing the signal and has to stop planting.

''Did he check his satellites?'' Patterson asks Towle.

''There's all kinds of satellites,'' he replies, sending a farmhand out to get a new battery for the station. ''Whatever it is, it's something simple -- it always is.''

WORKING THROUGH THE BUGS

The scene -- Towle in the middle of a vast potato field, talking about satellite coverage -- is incongruous, to say the least.

Towle grew up in Easton, has worked on farms all his life and for Green Thumb for 35 years. He's not an electronics expert; to work through this problem, he's on the cell phone with a consultant on Prince Edward Island.

For decades, farmers fixed whatever broke on their farm.

''You can take a bar, big hammer, torches and make it work,'' says Towle.

Now, they're taking the same approach with new technology, recognizing the value it represents is worth working through the bugs.

In the end, Towle and Patterson work up a solution that is part old-tech, part high-tech: The heavy winds may be moving the antenna on the base station too much.

So Patterson grabs a bungee cord off a truck and secures the antenna.

Problem solved.

Staff Writer Matt Wickenheiser can be contacted at 791-6316 or at:

mwickenheiser @pressherald.com

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Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

John Ewing/Staff Photographer: Monday, May 19, 2008....High-tech farming techniques utilizing GPS technology are allowing potato farms such as the Green Thumb Farm in West Fryeburg to increase production. Jeff Merrill operates the seeding tractor which is steered by computer utilizing GPS technology.

click image to enlarge

John Ewing/Staff Photographer: Monday, May 19, 2008....High-tech farming techniques utilizing GPS technology are allowing potato farms such as the Green Thumb Farm in West Fryeburg to increase production. A potato seed tractor driven by Jeff Merrill plants and fertilizes a field utilizing computerized GPS technology .

click image to enlarge

John Ewing/Staff Photographer: Monday, May 19, 2008....High-tech farming techniques utilizing GPS technology are allowing potato farms such as the Green Thumb Farm in West Fryeburg to increase production. Don Thibodeau, owner of the farm, has embraced the new technology systems which he feels allows him to stay competitive in the global potato market.

click image to enlarge

John Ewing/Staff Photographer: Monday, May 19, 2008....High-tech farming techniques utilizing GPS technology are allowing potato farms such as the Green Thumb Farm in West Fryeburg to increase production. Crop Specialist Megan Patterson explains how the GPS base station located in one of the farm's potato fields allows for more precise seeding and harvesting.

  


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