Harnessing the power of technology for better production and environmental responsibility


IN THE PHOTOS: (Left) Ty Strode, vice president, and Randy Strode, owner of Agri-Starts. (Middle) Greg Kennedy of the Department of Environmental Protection and Sutton Rucks of Milking R at the rainwater retention pond. (Right) Bryan Jones of Riverdale Potato Farm uses a smartphone to access information from moisture meters that promote efficiency and conservation in crop irrigation.

| Committee names winners of the annual Agricultural-Environmental Leadership Award |

BECAUSE OF THEIR reduced environmental impact and adaptation of more efficient technology, three innovative agricultural leaders have been named recipients of the 2014 Agricultural-Environmental Leadership Award.

The award-winning farms and ranches include Agri-Starts, Milking R, and Riverdale Potato Farm. In their own ways, each has made a distinct and wide-reaching push for environmental awareness in agriculture through the use of cutting-edge technologies.

The Agricultural-Environmental Leadership Award has been awarded every year since 1994 and is designed to recognize environmentally friendly and innovative farming practices. The nominees are evaluated by representatives from more than a dozen conservation and preservation groups.

AGRI-STARTSHarnessing the Power of Cloning and Recycled Rainwater

Agri-Starts, Inc. is an Apopka-based nursery that supplies over 400 types of starter plants, with over 100 more in the research and development stages. Their tissue-culture cloning process is much faster and produces many more plants than traditional cloning, according to Agri-Starts President Randy Strode.

Their tissue culture process also uses less space than traditional cloning and provides buyers with a disease-free, healthy plant — the latter of which Randy Strode termed “juvenile vigor.” Lab Manager Lisa Smith monitors the tissue-culture cloning process and makes many of the decisions regarding how and when the crops are grown. “We play around with mother nature a little bit … so we have to make sure we do things exactly the way we’re supposed to,” Smith explains.

According to Smith, Agri-Starts provides a welcoming, family-like environment for its employees, and honors like the Agricultural-Environmental Award reminds her that the company is on the right track. “We’re doing things right,” she says. “We’re doing things to make sure that everything is the way they should be for the next generation.”

The strongest environmental impact comes from how Agri-Starts grows the plants, Vice President and Marketing Director Ty Strode points out. For one, recycled rainwater makes up nearly all of the water used within the greenhouse. This is a huge task that requires an impervious roof with gutters that collect the water and funnel it into a 50,000-gallon tank.

“Rain water is as good a water as you’re ever going to get,” Ty Strode says. “It’s better than most wells.” After it’s collected, an ebb-and-flood, computer-controlled watering system comes into play, and any unused water is collected and recycled. This way, the greenhouse uses less fertilizer and none of it hits the ground, Randy and Ty Strode point out. The rainwater is also used to cool the greenhouse through wet walls, mist, and fans. This is actually the largest use of water for the operation.

Agri-Starts features many other efficient and environmentally friendly tools, making it a company sincerely interested in shifting the way farmers and ranchers grow their crops and do their business. “I’m a biologist and have always been an environmentalist and it’s just the right thing to do,” Randy Strode states. “But it costs a lot of money, (and) you’ve got to get in a position to do it.”

MILKING RThe First-Ever Open-Air Calf Barn, Auto-Feeders, and RFID Technology

Milking R, Inc., in Okeechobee is home to 1,200 milking cows on a 1,200-acre farm. The ranch also leases out over 2,000 more acres for beef cattle and row crops.

In 2014, Milking R built a free-stall, open-air calf barn that includes automatic feeders — the first ever in Florida. The open-air barn also features fans and mist, sand bedding, and foam insulation, which collectively help the calves stay cooler in the hot Florida summers, according to CEO Sutton Rucks.

The automatic feeders correlate with the RFID tags. When the calves walk into a feeding station, the radio-frequency tags are scanned, and a computer keeps track of how much each calf eats and signals the feeder to dispense that exact amount. The computer also keeps 24/7 monitoring records of the calves, tracks feeding habits, and measures growth. “To me, it’s a phenomenal system,” Rucks says.

The open-air barn is also part of a larger conservation effort at Milking R. The dairy farm consulted with the Natural Resources Conservation Services to become a model farm for stormwater and wastewater recycling.

The wastewater from the calf barn, along with the dairy facility, is collected using a three-stage lagoon system, which has the double benefit of recycling water and protecting the surrounding lands from runoff. The nutrient-rich water is used to irrigate corn and grass fields, and Milking R doesn’t sell that food off-site — it recycles back to the cows. In fact, Rucks is still amazed at just how much feed can be created from a bushel of seeds. “Mother earth is a great thing,” Rucks states.

Milking R also collects rainwater through a rainwater retention pond, which takes up about 90 acres. The farm uses fresh water in the milking facility and as drinking water for the cows. All of their conservative efforts add up to a dairy farm that is both innovative and environmentally conscious.

RIVERDALE POTATO FARMAdvanced Seepage Irrigation, Moisture Probes, and More

The Riverdale Potato Farm, Inc., is a third-generation, family-run farm that sits near the eastern shoreline of the St. Johns River. With the location, it’s important for the farm to control run-off and avoid sending unwanted nutrients into the river.

To decrease water use and run-off, the potato farm has installed an advanced seepage irrigation system. This type of system sends water straight to the plants’ roots using drip tape, rather than surface irrigation that puts the water on top of the soil. “It was amazing how fast and how effective this tape is,” Farm Manager and third-generation farmer Bryan Jones explains. “I can turn a system on and drive in my pickup to the other end, and there’s water.”

The farm also features moisture probes that detect the level of moisture in different zones. This allows Jones and his father, Richard Jones, to see where the moisture is and how much water each of the zones requires.

From there, Bryan says they can send the water exactly where it needs to be based on the moisture readings. They can also check the moisture readings on smart devices such as tablets and phones. “We can run the system for eight hours a week and turn it off, versus 24 hours a day, seven days a week for six to eight weeks at a time,” Jones elaborates, comparing the advanced irrigation system with traditional surface irrigation.

The amount of water savings is impressive, and that’s with zero water leaving the farm, Jones says. The end goal is complete automation with completely improved irrigation systems, which Jones admits is a full-time and lofty goal. He would like to have a system in place that wirelessly and autonomously controls irrigation based on the readings from the moisture probes. “If we’re not good stewards, we don’t have anything to work with,” Jones continues. “So we have to be mindful of where we are.”

CREDIT

article by KELSEY TRESSLER