Automation can help alleviate staffing issues. Photo courtesy of OMC.

September/October 2023
Artificial Intelligence
By BY KEITH LORIA, CONTRIBUTING WRITER

Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) are the future of sustainable agriculture and are already leaving a lasting impression on tree nut growers and their orchards.

Tobbie Wells, president and CEO of Orchard Machinery Corporation (OMC), said the Yuba City, California-based company utilizes a number of AI/ autonomous machinery innovations to help growers.

“The autonomy that we are using is the first of its kind — it’s not radar, it’s not lidar, it’s vision-based,” Wells said. “We have amassed the largest orchard data set of basically pictures, where they create a computer algorithm into a 3D world. So, our fully autonomous shaker, you can put into an orchard, and it’s like it has eyes. The more it runs, the smarter it gets.”

Automation can help alleviate staffing issues. Photo courtesy of OMC.
Automation can help alleviate staffing issues. Photo courtesy of OMC.

These can even work in GPS-denied areas. So, if there are tree canopies or a remote orchard where growers sometimes lose cell service, it’s not the case. The shaker can also run in orchards where there is dust and debris.

“The cool thing is we’re running this off of automotive cameras, so it’s not elaborate hardware that’s tough to replace or repair,” Wells said. “It alleviates staffing issues and the savings alone is amazing — you are easily saving 40 percent. And one person can run up to 10 machines.”

And it’s not just AI. Around the orchards, a host of new products and technology are available to growers, helping with pest and disease management, harvesting and monitoring.

“The two most prevalent issues that lead to the need for innovation for tree nut farmers are chemical usage and labor issues,” said Jim Chambers, senior vice president and general manager of Trimble Agriculture in Westminster, Colorado. “With continued pressure from consumers and agencies, it’s important to look for technologies and innovations that can help growers utilize as little chemicals as possible within their orchards. In addition, finding skilled labor remains
a challenge, so being able to automate some of the processes through innovative technology is critical.”

OMC utilizes a number of AI/autonomous machinery innovations to help growers.
OMC utilizes a number of AI/autonomous machinery innovations to help growers.

PEST AND DISEASE MANAGEMENT

New technology, such as scouting tools and electronic sensors, are emerging to help with monitoring pests, water management and identifying disease or pests in trees so growers can use applications to treat those issues.

“Another area of recent innovation is biological products,” said Nolon Doss III, crop consultant for Nutrien Ag Solutions in California, who provides services for almond and pistachio growers. “Nutrien has invested heavily over the past decade in developing and partnering with strategic partners in the creation of biofertilizers, biostimulants and biocontrol products. While traditional products for insecticides and fungicides are more commonly used today, biological products are great tools to have as nature-based technologies that provide protection to the plants with sustainable outcomes for our growers.”

Trimble ‘s WeedSeeker 2 is used to manage and maintain healthy orchard floors by ridding them of weeds, which also lessens the disease and pests present. Photo courtesy of Trimble Agriculture
Trimble ‘s WeedSeeker 2 is used to manage and maintain healthy orchard floors by ridding them of weeds, which also lessens the disease and pests present. Photo courtesy of Trimble Agriculture

Chambers noted Trimble ‘s WeedSeeker 2 is used to manage and maintain healthy orchard floors by ridding them of weeds, which also lessens the disease and pests present.

“When weeds get out of control, not only do pests and disease come in, but the weeds eat up all the water and nutrients that should be going to the trees,” he said. “By keeping the ground weed free, growers can reduce the number of pests and alleviate weeds taking all the nutrients and water needed for a successful tree nut crop.”

In addition, some hazelnut farmers have used WeedSeeker 2 for suckering applications to prevent new branches sprouting out from the main shoot. By using the spot spraying nozzle, WeedSeeker 2 helps knock the limb back into the tree and re-conform to grow more as a tree.

Trimble recently brought a longstanding technology used in Europe to Napa Valley, California: the Müller- Elektronik ISOBUS Sprayer-Controller for orchards and vineyards. This over-the-row sprayer manages herbicide and pesticide applications via an ultrasonic sensor that recognizes trees and vines as it passes and turns the spot spray on only where the plant exists, rather than a broad spray across the entire orchard or vineyard.

HARVESTING

The goal with innovation and technology advancements in harvesting is to automize the process as much as possible.

Trimble’s new guidance systems are helping tree nut growers during harvest. When nuts are shaken to the ground for harvest, sweepers come in to gather the crop.

“Because water has been such an issue the past few years, outside of the anomaly of 2023, these sweepers generate a lot of dust, which makes steering by hand extremely difficult,” Chambers said. “By installing Trimble autopilot systems on these sweepers, farmers can improve efficiencies and make it easier on their operators.”

“The autonomy that we are using is the first of its kind — it’s not radar, it’s not lidar, it’s vision-based.”  — Tobbie Wells president and CEO, OMC

In Spain, machines harvest hedge row almonds. They can shake, hull and shell the almonds in the field and then take nuts to the processor to dry.

“I think some type of this technology of harvesting will eventually be more commonly adapted in North America to further reduce the risk of almonds and other tree nuts from hitting the ground during harvest,” Doss said.

MONITORING

One of the most transformative agtech technologies has been in the area of IoT autonomous sensors, which can provide 24/7 data with varying levels of precision.

OMC utilizes a number of AI/autonomous machinery innovations to help growers. Photo courtesy of OMC.
OMC utilizes a number of AI/autonomous machinery innovations to help growers. Photo courtesy of OMC.

In-field monitoring takes the guesswork out of managing pests, will reduce pesticide use and improve the efficacy of new products.

For instance, digital scouting is an emerging tool that many believe will continue to spread to different parts of North America and grow in popularity.

“It’s a great way to be able to spot areas in the field that need some extra attention with applications,” Doss said, noting Nutrien has partnered with Taranis and has already started deploying Nutrien Digital Scout technology in areas in the Corn Belt.

The future seems clear: real time, sensitive and accurate probes, sensors and robotic surveillance will blanket the orchard and report back a timely picture to farm management of visible and invisible factors important to crop success.

A graduate of the University of Miami, Keith Loria is an award-winning journalist who has been writing for almost 20 years. View his recent writing at keithloria.contently.com.

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