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Ten New York growers are participating in research to study new technology that uses ultrasonic sensors to detect the presence or absence of trees and sprays according to tree size and canopy.

Ten New York growers are participating in research to study new technology that uses ultrasonic sensors to detect the presence or absence of trees and sprays according to tree size and canopy.

A group of New York tree fruit growers is collaborating with Cornell University researchers and conservation agencies in a project using "smart" technology to protect Lake Ontario from pesticide run-off. The project is studying old and new spray technologies to assess potential savings in pesticide use and costs.

Last fall, Cornell agricultural engineer Andrew Landers and the Orleans County Soil and Water Conservation District secured a $472,000 conservation innovation grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. The grant helped provide ten apple growers in New York’s Orleans County with almost half the cost of a new $44,000 SmartSpray device, orchard spraying technology patented by Durand-Wayland, Inc., that "sees" the tree and senses its size.

James Kingston, manager of the Orleans County conservation district, said that in New York, most of the research and grants dealing with surface water run-off have targeted the dairy industry’s manure storage. But tree fruit growers also have issues with pesticide drift and keeping the lake waters clean.

"There are a lot of apples grown in the Lake Ontario watershed and a lot of sprayers," Kingston said. "The combination of a lot of apples, a lot of spraying, and a lot of water is a bad mixture."

Growers used grant money to purchase precision tower sprayers made by Durand-Wayland, equipped with ultrasonic sensors linked to an on-board computer and cab-mounted controller that recognize the presence or absence of tree canopy and tree height. One sprayer involved in the study is made by Rears Manufacturing, but it is outfitted with Durand-Wayland’s SmartSpray technology.

Kingston praised the farmers for the amount of time and money they are investing in the grant. The growers had to pay $10,000 as a deposit on the equipment last fall during a time when money was needed to pay harvesting costs. Even with the grant subsidy, the cost of the new sprayer was more than the cost of a conventional new sprayer.

Savings

The two-year project brings together applied research and extension, said Landers, who leads the pesticide application team at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva. The ten growers provide a good sample size, and their orchards reflect real-world settings, Kingston said. The growers’ spray records from the past five years will be compared with records from the new sprayers during 2007 and 2008 to determine actual savings.

The ten growers must keep detailed spray records, documenting the volume of spray used, number of acres, and fields sprayed during the growing season. SmartSpray’s tractor-mounted controller simplifies the process by providing data on total acres sprayed, acres sprayed per hour, ground speed, and percentage of chemicals saved versus traditional spraying. Landers and his research team will use the data to quantify the sprayer’s potential to meet the economic and environmental needs of fruit growers in western New York, and ultimately, of other growers in the nation.

"There are claims made that technology can reduce drift by up to 70 percent, but it depends greatly on the fruiting wall being sprayed," Landers said. "If you have a lot of gaps in your orchard, there is huge potential for savings, but if you have a well-manicured training system, like a super spindle, the savings may not be that great." He described the growers involved in the project as "traditional," all using different orchard systems. "We may find that the savings in pesticide applications are more in the range of 25 to 30 percent."

Landers said they also expect to gain valuable information from the participating growers regarding the technology’s reliability and maintenance. "Growers are often afraid of new technology, but the [Ford] F350 pickup trucks they drive are just bristling with digital, computerized, state-of-the-art technology."

Spin-off

Grant workshops are being held this year and next during the growing season at each of the growers’ orchards. "The spray demonstrations will allow other growers and neighbors to come and ‘kick the tires’ and learn the good and bad about the technology," Landers said.

"If we can get some good figures out of this project, that’s what we’re after," he commented. Landers found little research done on new orchard spray technology when he put the grant proposal together. "We hope there is spin-off from the project and that other growers can see the benefits. I’ve been telling our grape growers in the Lake Ontario and Finger Lakes regions that the technology also works with grapes and they should consider putting a grant together."

Even states on the West Coast, like California, have significant groundwater contamination issues and could benefit from reduced pesticide run-off from dormant sprays in nuts and tree fruit, he explained. The project will document the amount that growers can expect to save in pesticide costs and labor from smart spraying technology while softening their footprint on the environment—a win-win situation for all involved.