Farmers gather at World Ag Expo

February 13, 2008 7:10:50 PM PST
Agriculture is the largest industry in California and right now, it's facing pressure on multiple fronts such as high fuel costs and even higher wages, coupled with efforts to curb pollution and deal with climate change. It's no wonder technology is a major focus at the World Ag Expo, where 100,000 farmers from 67 countries have come together.

Conservation and improving crop quality can sometimes seem like diametrically opposite concepts in farming. However, climate change has put pressure on growers to embrace new technology.

Bad weather can be devastating for crops, affecting their quality and yield. Spring-time hail, for example, can damage budding fruit trees.

The answer? Setting off sonic cannons to break up the ice pellets before they reach the ground. California vineyards are seeing a new crop of technology appearing in their fields.

Bay Area based Grape Networks has created Climate Genies. They're sensors connected to a wi-fi network that monitor temperature, humidity, light and soil moisture. It's new tool to alert growers when conditions threaten their crop.

"They've had catastrophic frosts where the whole vineyard has been ruined, so they understand that if they can get that data, and can save that crop, then they will use that."

17 battery-powered sensors are deployed over a 50-acre vineyard near Modesto, replacing a traditional weather station that would only track readings in one spot and require someone to gather the data. Instead, the sensors not only collect data, they act as nodes, relaying conditions from all the sensors and sending them to vineyard managers over the internet.

Decisions can then be made, for example, whether to water or to apply sulfur to stop mildew.

"You want to have an even crop. So if everything is even in my vineyard, and I have a good crop, it's consistent throughout the vineyard. If I get an area that, say five or 10 percent is bad, that five percent brings down my whole vineyard. So it brings down the value of my crop."

This can lead to consistent vintages and higher quality wine.

While this technology has been quickly embraced here in California, there's another part of the world which says it's desperate for this technology. We're talking about Australia, which has been hit by multiple years of drought.

Peter Tsepeleff was invited to Australia a few months ago to demonstrate his sensors. The drought there is threatening a wide range of crops and Australia's government is seeking technology solutions.

"We have a range of Australian companies here at the World Ag Expo that will be looking at that, and we're hoping to work with American companies, obviously to bring in innovation from us and try to find ways to adapt that," says Tsepeleff.

The situation is so serious in Australia, that the government will reimburse farmers up to $20,000 dollars to assess their water use and to buy water conservation technology. The Grape Networks system costs less than that and is in serious talks to export the technology down under.