Fruit & Vegetable Magazine

Features Production Research
Precision equipment being developed for wild blueberry producers


November 30, 1999
By Dan Woolley

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Horticultural crop growers – including wild blueberry producers – can expect more precision agriculture in their fields, according to Dr. David Percival, chair of the Nova Scotia Agricultural College’s (NSAC) Wild Blueberry Research Program.

Horticultural crop growers – including wild blueberry producers – can expect more precision agriculture in their fields, according to Dr. David Percival, chair of the Nova Scotia Agricultural College’s (NSAC) Wild Blueberry Research Program.

Precision agriculture research has been underway at the NSAC since 2002, Dr. Percival says, adding that a meeting that year with officials of Oxford Frozen Foods – Nova Scotia’s largest wild blueberry producer and processor – established a research objective to reduce wild blueberry cultivation costs by precision delivery of agricultural chemicals to fields and increasing emphasis on farming sustainability.

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Dr. Qamar-uz-Zaman, NSAC’s Precision Agriculture Research chair, says the research seeks “to optimize agricultural production in both time and spatial dimensions,” adding that over-applying chemicals has adverse environmental effects and increases production costs.

“What we are trying to avoid is a blanket application of agricultural chemicals, particularly pesticides,” says Dr. Percival

Of the province’s 40,000 acres of wild blueberries, 30 per cent are bare areas without berries, he says. “So, in a lot of cases, we think we can cut input uses by 30 per cent right there.”

Due to soil and crop variables plus weeds and wild grasses in blueberry fields, wild blue blueberries are a unique crop, says Dr. Zaman, adding that the fields must be mapped to set fertilizer application rate and it cannot be done manually.

Some field sites, because of crop yield rates, will need more or less fertilization with steep slopes requiring heavier applications and low-lying locations lighter fertilization, says Dr. Zaman. These topographical variations can be mapped (plotted) by remote sensing through a geographical positioning system (GPS), he says, adding that variable rate fertilization can lessen environmental impacts and remote sensing can plot sites for spot herbicide applications.

Dr. Zaman and his engineering team have developed a cost-effective, prototype variable-rate sprayer. It spot-applies herbicides, fungicides and insecticides from booms mounted on a four-wheel-drive ATV that carries a camera, sensors, computerized controllers, solenoid valves and custom image-processing software to detect weeds, grasses, blueberry plants and bare spots.

Dr. Zaman estimates spot application made using the variable rate sprayer to control golden rod saved up to 80 per cent of the herbicides that would have typically been applied. The sprayer has also been used to do spot applications on sheep sorrel, fescue, grasses and mosses in blueberry fields.

His team has also developed a tractor-mounted commercial prototype variable rate spryer. A uniform field application of the herbicide Kerb on a 300-acre field costs around $54,000. A spot application using the program’s new sprayer costs about $10,000, a savings of $43,000, says Dr. Zaman.

The Wild Blueberry Producers Association of Nova Scotia (WBPANS) participated as a partner in NSAC’s precision agriculture research in wild blueberries. WBPANS executive director Dave Sangster says research drives production, berry quality, maintains competitiveness, increases profitability, decreases input costs and reduces environmental impacts, which “aids sales all over the world.”

Gary Brown, a field manager with Oxford Frozen Foods, says his company has received recent inquiries about the precision agriculture technology for use on grain fields and pastures from western Canadian farmers.

The NSAC engineering staff has also developed a cost-effective automated slope-mapping system, fixed to an ATV, to plot slope variations in the fields and make maps to determine site-specific fertilization to decrease environmental impact and increase crop profitability.

Researchers have also developed an ATV-towed electromagnetic induction instrument to map soil variability and built a self-propelled cart to carry instrumentation for low-cost, automated yield monitoring. The machine can plot fruit yield in a field and create maps for site-specific chemical application. Another program creation developed uses a modified tractor-towed fertilizer spreader to administer site-specific, variable rate fertilization using GPS-guided maps.