Field-vegetable farmers in Ontario, Canada, are desperate for technology that can lend greater predictability to more labour-intensive parts of the growing season.
At a recent field demonstration day, local farmers wondered if a new-to-Canada automated transplanting machine – one originally designed for the irrigated fields of California – could provide a cost-effective solution to their own labour issues. The machine in question is made by PlantTape, an American company with bases in California and Spain. It works by automatically pulling vegetable transplants, held in belts of biodegradable tape, through a mechanism reminiscent of a grain drill. Individual transplants are cut, separated, and planted at regular intervals as the machine is towed through the field.
The entire machine can run with 2 employees, plus a third to operate the tractor. It can accommodate up to 8 planting “modules” (the one being demonstrated had two), with individual controls for plant spacing, row spacing, and depth. Matt Smyth, the local tomato producer who hosted the Ontario demonstration, said the reduced number of employees needed to operate the transplant system would solve one of his most pressing problems. “It’s a scary thing when you know there’s all this work to do, and you don’t think you’ll have the labour to do it,” said Mr Smyth. “It can plant at 3 to 5 miles per hour, which is a lot faster than we are used to.”
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While the system is already successfully employed in American and European fields, however, attendees noticed problems when it came to planting field tomatoes in a Southwestern Ontario setting. At 2 to 3 inches, the tomato transplants that fit the machine design are much smaller than the 5 or 6 inch transplants often used by Ontario growers. A watering system is also not yet part of the design – the one used during the demonstration was temporarily added by the Canadian operator, and deemed insufficient by most attendees. This is an issue for Ontario’s non-irrigated field vegetables.
Brian Antle, president of PlantTape and part of a family operating 35,000 acres of irrigated field vegetables in California, admitted the Ontario demonstration was the first time his company had tried planting non-irrigation tomatoes. However, he also voiced confidence that incorporating an effective sub-surface watering system could be done with relative ease. “We’ve spent the last 3 years being our own guinea pigs. This system works,” he said. “Planting tomatoes into ground without irrigation is definitely a new one for us, but if that’s truly the limitation, we can definitely figure that out.”
At anywhere from USD$ 100,000 to $ 200,000 for the transplanting system, a decent ROI is certainly easier for larger growers – the vast tracts operated by the owners of PlantTape, for example. Despite this, attendees operating smaller, more weather-dependent Canadian farms still expressed notable interest – a testament to how severe labour shortages and human resource costs are during peak times in the growing season.
“Something like this could alleviate 85% of labour costs (associated with planting),” says Pascal Jennen, a local onion and tomato farmer. “It’s like the early days of any technology. There are lots of things coming down the pipe.”