WG&S recently sat down with Will Feliz, president of /Duncan Family Farms of Arizona to discuss precision farming and the use of data.
By Yvete Minor
Duncan Family Farms has been farming for decades. Tell us a little about your history.
Arnott Duncan grew up in a fourth-generation farming family. Arnott ventured out on his own in the mid-1980s and started his own operation growing conventionally grown fruits and vegetables. In the mid ‘90s, the farm expanded into organic production, growing organic baby leaf items including several different varieties of lettuce and greens. And, in 2010, they started a specialty crop program that includes kales, chards, beets, romaine hearts and culinary herbs. Considered one of the leading organic growers in the United States, Duncan Family Farms is based in Goodyear, Ariz., and has growing operations in Yuma, Ariz., and in Imperial Valley, Cuyama Valley and Nipomo, Calif.
How has the technical revolution impacted operations at Duncan Farms?
We continue to look for any and every type of technological innovation that will improve our operations, the quality of our products, agronomic efficiencies, and that make the lives of our team members better. For example, we use an automated harvesting system for our tender leaf items.
Part of our team traveled to Europe to tour several manufacturer and grower operations to identify the latest trends that are there. We ordered our new piece of harvesting equipment from the Netherlands about two seasons ago and have another custom-made piece of equipment coming this season.
In addition, we’ve identified a few pieces of equipment, both here in the States and in Europe, which we will be using for our tillage and planting process as well as in our transplanting operation.
And, we just approved an initiative to work with Trimble on its Precision Agriculture Solutions platform that includes a database and monitoring equipment. We anticipate that will help us access the data that we are currently curating throughout our farm system and harness it to make better, more efficient, and more effective agronomic and operational decisions.
What will you be monitoring?
Our systems will monitor activities like irrigation and tillage tractor work. The monitors will go beyond an isolated sensor system to include analytics such as how many acres per hour we can plant, the levels of moisture in our fields, and other related factors that we will then be able to archive and analyze to determine on an acre-per-acre basis what is working and, more importantly, what is not as efficient as we would like it to be.
Precision agriculture is still in its infancy in our segment of the industry, however, we are really starting to see interest grow and innovations evolve because there is recognition of the power of Big Data, and little data, for that matter.
What process did Duncan Farms follow in choosing this approach to precision agriculture?
It’s been a year-long process. We assembled an internal task force, headed up by our supply chain team and consisted of members from our IT, operations, harvest, human resources and finance teams, who started researching different solutions and different companies that offer precision agriculture. We narrowed it down and then asked several to prepare presentations. We conducted several rounds of interviews and we asked them to actually integrate their platform with our planting and production schedule. We then determined which solution would have the best opportunity to work within our system, which allowed us to make a final decision on the solution to pursue.
How did you decide that an all-encompassing platform versus those that isolate, say H20 or other factors, was the place to start?
For Duncan Farms, we want to become more effective with the resources we use. With this platform, we will become more efficient and have more robust monitoring and analytic capabilities, which will allow us to create metrics and reporting that support our team’s efforts in making better decisions.
Precision ag entails all of it, including aerial imagery. As we collect all the data from these independent variables into the database, we can determine if we need to focus on one, major function or another, or multiple…it will be interesting to find out.
From what we gather, many of the innovations that the startups in the Center (Western Growers Center for Innovation & Technology) are focusing on could easily tie into an all-encompassing precision agriculture database like the one we are securing. So if someone wanted to focus on water consumption and efficiencies or soil content first, they could start with collecting that data in an electronic format that could be uploaded into a platform that would aggregate multiple variables as they are added into the overall picture of an operation.
How would you encourage other WG members to get started in learning more about the startups and their innovations as well as exploring ag tech solutions in general?
To start, Western Growers’ webinars and Lunch & Learn opportunities are fabulously well-attended by our team because they are well done and we think they are tremendous vehicles for valuable information.
You know, innovators are in constant R&D mode and it would be an interesting opportunity to have a startup partner with an active member to discuss what they are both doing and partner to innovate pilot programs.
As a sponsor of the Center for Innovation & Technology, what would success look like, and what are you hoping it evolves into?
When the Center is consistently assisting startups to get off-the-ground and turning-out solutions that we and other members can effectively deploy in a meaningful way for the benefit of our businesses and helping the marketplace—that is success.
In addition, we hope the Innovation Center continues to be a beacon to entrepreneurs, to gravitate towards, and to bring better technology solutions for our industry. It is very important for innovators to have a place to go to help them promote and propel their ideas.
It is really important that, as an industry we continue to foster and support the innovation initiative. When you stop to think about the resource constraints that we are currently under, they are nearly crushing; and we have to come up with solutions that allow us to continue successfully for decades to come. Technological advancement is the key to that.
Clearly, we believe it is critical that we have smart people coming up with great ideas from which we all have an opportunity to benefit. And, “we” is the collective, not just Duncan Farms, but the industry. We need to get there quicker—for everybody.