Farm data management becomes priority


Issue Date: August 21, 2019
By Kevin Hecteman
Alejandra Rocha, food safety coordinator for Rocha Bros. Farms, looks over data on her tablet in a Moss Landing strawberry field. The farm uses an app to collect daily checklists from supervisors in the field, making it faster and easier for Rocha to keep track of everything happening at her operation’s Salinas Valley and Santa Maria fields.
Photo/Kevin Hecteman
Greg Gonzalez, left, and Ty Swavely of Scheid Family Wines check a sensor connected to a remotely monitored and activated irrigation pump in one of their Greenfield vineyards.
Photo/Kevin Hecteman

(Editor's note: This is the second part of our series on deployment of agricultural technology. To read the first installment, visit www.agalert.com.)

On the modern farm, soil sensors, well monitors and paperwork abound. The trick is trying to keep all that data organized.

To that end, a Monterey County winegrape grower, Scheid Family Wines of Greenfield, came up with its own system, first called VitWatch, to digitize information previously recorded on paper.

That system "gave our clients a view into the season as everything progressed, from bud break all the way to preharvest, and what irrigation was going on," said Greg Gonzalez, director of vineyard operations.

That has evolved into an in-house dashboard allowing Scheid managers and supervisors to assess vineyard conditions. The dashboard incorporates information from scouts who gather and report data on their iPads and from soil sensors, such as neutron probes that measure hydrogen levels in soil and compute how many inches of water per square foot vines were getting.

Making everything available in one portal is the job of Ty Swavely, Scheid's GIS and database analyst.

"You've got 200 blocks and sensors all in those blocks, sensing all sorts of different stuff, which is awesome," Swavely said. "But then to look at that, it's so distributed, and you really need to combine it all into an easy chart or table."

Gonzalez said the one-stop shop makes his job much easier.

"You go to a block, you see a symptom, you can bring up stats on that block in the field as you go," he said, adding that the portal also helps save water.

Scheid supervisors and irrigators will collect data for a week, look at weather forecasts and schedule irrigation times accordingly, Gonzalez said.

"If you can identify that, and then you can really understand in terms of your soil-plant-water relationship, your targeting of that water, your use efficiency goes way up," he said. "By understanding that relationship in terms of delivering nutrition, you can hit right in the sweet spot in terms of your deficit irrigation."

In the Salinas Valley, irrigation tends to involve groundwater, and with the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act in force, Alex Bugrov may find himself with more business. He's the brains behind Well Bubbler, which he describes as a type of smart meter for irrigation wells. The system tracks well level, flow rate, discharge pressure and pump power.

"By looking at those things, you can monitor long-term trends in groundwater in this area," Bugrov said. "You can look at the performance of a specific well, look at things like a specific drawdown and the overall pumping efficiency of your pump, which are both primary indicators of their health."

Users also can see "who else is drinking from this same aquifer and what effect all this combined withdrawal is having on the water table," he added.

As he spoke, the Well Bubbler started humming.

"It's taking a well-level sample," Bugrov said, noting the system gathers data every 15 minutes on well level, flow rate, pressure and power, recorded locally and sent to a dashboard in the cloud.

Norm Groot, executive director of the Monterey County Farm Bureau, said meters such as this will be crucial to groundwater management.

"I think where it's going to become most important is cooperating with your neighbors on when you're extracting, so that you're not creating an unnecessary imbalance in the basin," Groot said.

At a berry farm in Moss Landing, technology takes the form of streamlining and organizing reports necessary to ensure food safety.

Rocha Bros. Farms, which grows for California Giant, makes use of an organizing app called HeavyConnect to track daily checklists from the farm's Salinas and Santa Maria operations.

Supervisors check their fields every morning before harvest, said Alejandra Rocha, the farm's food safety supervisor; when paper forms were being used, "the daily checklist would take a while just to even make it into the office," she said. Now, "I can go ahead and look at it right there and then, so I don't have to wait until that paper comes back to me."

Eric Valenzuela, director of food safety and sustainability for California Giant, noted that pest-control advisers and fertilizer applicators also can log in and post reports of the work they've done.

"It allows her to not only just look at it from one perspective, but so many different other perspectives using this platform," Valenzuela said.

That sort of streamlining was the whole idea, said Patrick Zelaya, the developer of HeavyConnect, who said the app "removes paperwork from farming operations—all paperwork." That includes timecards, irrigation schedules, employee safety reports and crop-protection reports as well as food safety, he added.

Having all the food-safety information at one's fingertips is crucial in the event of a product recall, Valenzuela noted.

"I will be able to get the documentation for that recall process much sooner than the FDA requirement of two hours," he said.

As farming practices evolve, higher education evolves with them.

At California State University Monterey Bay, Andrew Lawson, dean of the College of Science, said the university will admit its first students pursuing an agricultural plant and soil science degree next year.

"The idea for that program is really to be the ag program in the state that's focused on vegetable and berry production," Lawson said.

To that end, several local farmers have stepped up with donations. Among them is Ross Merrill of Merrill Farms, who has established scholarships for two students—"first-generation college students that would otherwise not have the means to go," he said.

Bob Johnson, who farmed in Monterey County for 43 years before retiring in 1993, gave a donation that allowed Cal State Monterey Bay to hire faculty members for its agricultural programs.

"Agriculture and education are two things that need to go together, because it's getting more and more complex," said Johnson, who served on the California Farm Bureau Federation Board of Directors from 1976-82.

(Kevin Hecteman is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at khecteman@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.