Precision Agriculture at True Earth

May 2010

Scott Lawson is a BioGro certified farmer using precision agriculture on his farm

Scott Lawson is a BioGro certified farmer who is using Precision Agriculture (PA) Techniques on his Hawkes Bay farm. Produce from his farm is marketed through the True Earth brand.

At Lawsons Organic Farms they integrate the best of organic, biological and conventional toolkits.

The business started in 1992. Scott says he saw a marketing opportunity at that time in the organic sector and at the same time started questioning the growing systems theyd been using until that time.

They came to Ngatarawa Road looking primarily for viticulture, orcharding and some cropping land with a view to converting it to organics. They became certified in 1994 and launched the True Earth label in 1999.

The property they hit on had been in the same family since 1910 so Scott and Vicki could gauge its history. There hadn't been any DDT, Lindane or organochlorines used on the farm, so there were no residue issues.

The transition period was easy. They started with 12 hectares of organic squash.. Since then, they have diversified into carrots, onions and potatoes, which have become the mainline, along with berry fruits such as blueberries and strawberries".

Scott trained as an engineer and has a traditional farming background.

The farm is run in 3 parts: Vegetable/cereal production, veg packhouse

and blueberry production and packing. There is a manager for each area, with Vicki and Scott having an overview of all operations.

Scott sees his expertise in vegetables and he is very keen on precision ag and the adoption and integration into daily farming operations to help with the overall sustainability.

Vicki runs the Admin/HR side and keeps the money going around. They have a team of 12 full time staff which is then added to on a seasonal basis as and when required, by up to 50 or more.

Scotts philosophy is simple: The health of our soils relates directly to the health of our community. My intention is to promote healthy soils to produce healthy food, for healthy people.

The crops are an important part of the rotation process to keep the soils healthy. Some crops are worked back into the soil others are used as straw for weed control in the Blueberry crop. Organic wheat is grown as stock feed for organic poultry farmers and other crops go to organic dairy farmers.

The crop starts being picked in mid January and runs through to about April. Each bush has about 10 picks theyre quite labour intensive. They need upwards of 30 people picking. Theyre currently working on Demeter certification for this crop. The crop is frost prone and Lawsons use overhead sprinklers to protect them.

Scott adopted RTK GPS early on to drive straight lines and save costs. GPS lets him do things we wanted to do before but couldnt. He says it is an essential tool.

They operate a controlled traffic farming (CTF) system. Precision GPS guidance keeps our cultivation, planting and mechanical and thermal weeding equipment on the same tracks. They are also using GPS for capturing yield data, fertility and pH information and have begun mapping our soils with EM38.

Scott has found that GPS allows straight lines to be driven by any operator, saving inputs and making operations quicker and cheaper. RTK GPS guides the tractor to within 1-2 cm of the same wheel tracks, year after year.

Now he is using GPS guidance to control traffic and get on top of soil compaction. Controlled traffic farming is about deliberately driving on designated roads through the crop and keeping compaction in one zone. The beds or gardens are then kept relatively free of compaction.

Scotts controlled traffic system is seasonal, because current tractors and harvesters have different wheel track widths. All operations except harvest are in the controlled traffic system so plants get the growth benefit.

The chemical weed management tools available to organic farmers are very limited. So they tend to make more use of hand, mechanical and thermal weeding.

Hand weeding has been used extensively in Scotts operation. It is slow and expensive, and labour management is a big consumer of time too. Precise GPS guidance has allowed bullet straight rows to be planted and mechanical weeding machines to be guided close to the crop row. This has reduced expenditure on hand weeding operations.

Thermal weeding is also used, with steam applied to kill emerging weeds. Timing is critical and so the controlled traffic system is a bonus. The formed tracks have an enhanced ability to carry traffic, even when ground conditions wetter than ideal.

Mechanical and thermal weeding, as pursued by organic growers like Scott, are receiving more interest from conventional growers. Some weeds cannot be easily taken out of some crops with selective herbicides. Chemical options are declining as products come off registration and as plants evolve chemical resistance. As chemicals are deregistered, growers lose ability to rotate chemistry and avoid evolved resistance.

Scott is intrigued by the view some folks have of organics. If I asked some fellow growers if theyd like to try the organic weeding methods I am applying, theyd likely tell me where to get off. If I ask if theyd like to weed mechanically using GPS and eliminate expensive selective herbicides from their program, their ears prick up.

Scott says that organic farming is all about the need for forward planning. He says you need to be proactive rather than reactive.

The soil is the key. If it isnt in good nick with a good structure they dont have anything. He says you cant simply replace what it lacks with fertiliser nor can you wait till Spring to find out there is a problem. They main practical way they deliver good soil health is to use a good cropping rotation anything from 1-5 years which interrupts pest and disease patterns. The main thing is avoid a monoculture.

Sales of organic produce in supermarkets have been steadily increasing in recent years, though Scott admits that the business should focus a bit more on marketing.

"Its very easy to get stuck on the farm. You can do sales over the phone but you cant do marketing that way. I try to get to the markets quarterly, but you have to make a conscious effort to drag yourself off the land and go into the city. None of us really like doing that; otherwise, we would be living in the cities in the first place."

The following excerpt is from the True Earth Website:

Basically the psyllid causes a disease that reduces the yield and quality of the crop. On potatoes the foliar symptoms are a stunting and yellowing of the growing tip, and after a while infected potatoes develop a scorched appearance and plants collapse prematurely. At the moment very little is known how to treat infected crops.

True Earth potatoes have not been exempt, and we have had lower yields this season, and a reduction in the average size. This has affected our ability to supply you all year around with potatoes and we are afraid there will be no potatoes on the shelf during October and November.

So what are we doing about this you ask?

Scott is actively researching organic control methods, and also working with conventional growers and scientists to find a solution for all growers.