For the past couple of years, the in-field team at Wilbur-Ellis in California’s Salinas Valley has been hands-on in how automated thinners can benefit the area’s growers. Since March, the retailer has offered customers access to three machines as a new service.
“We have everything from helicopters to tractors in terms of equipment to help farmers steward the molecules we have and get applications done effectively,” says Blaine Wilson regional territory manager. “As advisers to the grower, we want to be able to offer everything from the recommendation to the application, and expanding to offer automated thinners is a natural part of that.”
Most commonly used in romaine lettuce, head lettuce and leaf lettuce, the automated thinners use artificial intelligence to identify plants for precise herbicide application.
Two factors surrounding labor are driving growers toward automated solutions: availability and expense. Using automated thinners resolves the labor issues with an additional benefit as well. Wilson reports use of the machines rather than a field crew with hoes is a labor savings but also has shown yield increases verified with data.
“Some growers own and operate their own machines, but for a group of customers, we can offer the machinery and the expertise in running it,” he says. “Also, having our own experience with the technology allows us to help all of our customers interpret the data opportunities in running the automated equipment, which includes plant populations, spacing distance, and more.”
And the next step for Wilbur-Ellis will be to integrate this new data layer into its AgVerdict software.
“I think a big piece of what people are missing when integrating automation into farming is that it will never replace the human side. There’s an art in how successful farmers make decisions, raise a crop, and increase profits,” Wilson says. “What automation can do is get us back to really being a steward of the environment, so we pull back, review data, and allow the robotics and machinery to teach us areas where we can be more efficient—and ultimately more sustainable.”
As an example, Wilson shares that it’s just a first step for the automated thinners to kill the target plant, and the next step would be for the thinners to also be able to apply products to the “good plant.”