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The Future of Horticulture Through Precision Technology

In June, I had the pleasure of being the first speaker at an all-new conference. What an eye-opener it was. The Academy of Crop Production, sponsored by the University of Georgia (UGA) and the Georgia Green Industry Association and directed by UGA Professors Paul Thomas and Matt Chappell included three days of intensive, focused topics related to nursery and greenhouse production.

I have now seen “The Future of Horticulture.” It is both mind-boggling and exciting and it’s going to start a revolution in how we grow. We are going to bolt rapidly into a world of growing that is sensor-driven, and physiologically based upon processes that optimize and maximize plant growth while dramatically minimizing resources and inputs.

Sensor-Driven Irrigation Technology Puts The Science Into Growing

The truly earth-shattering stuff at the conference was based on ongoing irrigation technology research headed by Dr. Marc van Iersel (UGA) and Dr. John Lea-Cox (University of Maryland), as well as Drs. Thomas and Chappell, and others.

This new technology is beta-testing at a number of commercial sites. The data is stunning. One nursery showed 58% water savings and shaved months off woody production cycles. Another greenhouse documented 35% plus higher income, primarily due to increased quality of cut flowers.

Dr. Lea-Cox blew my doors off with the next iteration of this sensor-driven control scheme, using newly developed and miniaturized sensors to log multiple readings and then applying them directly to specific data on what plants really need and when. For instance, we traditionally water early in the day so foliage is dry at night for disease control. Dr. Lea-Cox is looking, however, at when the plant is actually demanding maximum water usage. Data shows that watering in mid to late afternoon has resulted in a 30% greater growth rate with less water used. This is an incredible application of the science of growing and a sustainable approach — less water, less fertilizer, less runoff and erosion, and shorter cropping. It’s an all-around win.

Finally, we are using all the environmental parameters systematically, tying them to actual crop physiology. I can see a day in the near future where computers plot and graph individual crops and sensors track deviation from the optimal curves and change settings and irrigation to get as close to those curves as possible. Even in mixed production, like for a typical nursery and especially for greenhouses, growers could program individual benches for separate irrigation valves and even root zone heat valves. This technology could take over the crop seamlessly and immediately, not to replace a grower, but to allow them to control a much larger area with precision.

Plant-Oriented, Wireless Interface Opens The Door To Data

There is also a flexible visual interface already developed and being updated that is visible anywhere. Data logging, growth curves, inputs, alerts, and alarms are all available on tablets, phones, computers, watches, or in cars. These exist for the environmental computers already, but those are limited to their inputs and sensors and their view. The interface Dr. Lea-Cox is building is more plant-oriented and friendly. It tabulates different areas and locations and feeds the data to a centralized data server. All of this is wireless and web-based, or cellular in remote areas.

Precision Growing Minimizes Inputs, Maximizes Quality

So, where does this go? Well, I want in, and I want in now. Can you envision a drone, using a precision global positioning system (GPS), methodically flying over endless perennial production beds searching for stress with infrared, and then automatically triggering the irrigation at just the right amount and duration, with no human interference or foibles?

This is such important work, and it is already working for some growers. The data proves it. But it is the vision and passion of these researchers, and how they see the applications and their future uses, that is so inspiring.

Frankly, we need to get behind this work now, and support it, because we are all going to scramble for water, fuel, labor, fertilizers and plastic, and time.