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Precision agriculture is a timely idea, but profits may not grow fast

By   /   Friday, October 18th, 2013  /   Comments Off on Precision agriculture is a timely idea, but profits may not grow fast

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Dubroff

Farmers are a skeptical lot.

And Ventura County farmers have good reasons to be skeptical.

They, and their counterparts in the Tri-Counties, grow high-risk, high-yield crops on relatively small plots of land surrounded by housing developments and urban areas.

They are subject to heavy regulations on fertilizer, pesticide and water use. Particularly on strawberry fields of the coastal plains, the stakes are high and profit margins are razor-thin in a business that in a good year brings $700 million in revenue.

Enter the unmanned aerial vehicle makers. Some 60 experts in drones, sensors and advanced technology, along with funders, inventors and a few wannabees gathered Oct. 16 in Camarillo to learn about what role, if any, drones and other unmanned devices will have in Ventura County’s agriculture sector. Included in the meeting were experts from UC Merced, which has a lab devoted to drones in agriculture and Vandenberg Air Force Base.

“I have a sense of wonder about what is possible,” said Bill Buratto, president of Ventura County Economic Development Association and the convener of the meeting.

It came about because VCEDA, Ventura County and players in industry and higher education have put together a proposal to become one of six FAA-designated test sites for drones.

Teledyne Technologies of Thousand Oaks, a leading sensor builder, and Aerovironment, perhaps the world’s leader in building unmanned vehicles and a major employer in Simi Valley, were lead presenters. And their visions for the future of what’s called precision agriculture were impressive. Indeed, some studies suggest that 80 percent of drone use in the future will be for agriculture.

But the smattering of farmers in the room, and Farm Bureau chief John Krist, were focused on the bottom line. And that is where the rubber truly meets the road.

Absent a technological breakthrough that dramatically lowers the cost of growing strawberries, lemons or avocados, drones are going to be a grind-it-out innovation that marginally increases yields or reduces costs but at a price that is yet unquantifiable. Unlike drip irrigation or heavier mulching, which does deliver benefits that are measurable, the use of drones is, at this moment, an unproven commodity.

A breakthrough unmanned application —let’s say mechanized strawberry picking — remains an expensive dream. How expensive? Ask Ty Safreno at Trust Automation in San Luis Obispo, who tried and failed to produce something that would be a game changer for Santa Maria Valley growers.

I came away from the meeting with a few ideas:

• There are too many assets in the region to walk away from precision agriculture even if the FAA designation falls short. Sensor makers such as Teledyne and Flir, combined with researchers at our region’s universities, are eventually going to produce applications that are useful in the agribusiness space.

• A suggestion for a UAV competition to produce affordable solutions for agriculture is a great idea. It is the sort of thing that could produce a breakthrough and create buzz.

• As drones get smaller and smaller, many of the FAA issues may simply evolve themselves away. Small vehicles flying at 100 or 200 feet above a strawberry field or lemon grove are not going to interfere at all with commercial or private aviation.

• The potential for unmanned applications in wine growing, big business in Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties, remains unexplored.

Despite the farming industry’s initial skepticism, we probably have not heard the last about precision agriculture. Finding ways to move innovation much faster from lab to field is probably the best approach. That will require some very creative partnerships between universities, industrial firms, and, most important, the agribusiness sector.

• Editor Henry Dubroff is a member of the VCEDA board of directors. Contact him at [email protected]

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