A decade spent developing pheromones for pest management underscored the importance of these chemicals for Michael Gilbert, president and CEO of British Columbia’s SemiosBio Technologies Inc.
But at a cost of up to $5,000 a kilogram, pheromones are also one of the costliest pest control products on the market, making targeted deployment key to cost-effectiveness.
Ideally, growers would obtain information directly from their orchards, by wireless transmission from traps that record insect activity by camera or other sensing device. Insect activity would trigger the release of pheromones at a critical time.
Semios also works with precision control systems for bedbugs, but the challenge of developing agricultural applications turned out to be interference from the crops themselves.
While digital information systems have fine-tuned growers’ understanding of many aspects of their operations, a simple barrier has long stood in the way of wireless technologies for orchards: the orchard canopy.
Wireless networks operate at frequencies of 900 MHz and 2.4 GHz, and both are disrupted by the waves that leaves generate while fluttering in the breeze.
As part of a consortium that also included the University of British Columbia, Okanagan Kootenay Sterile Insect Release Program and the University of Guelph, Semios received approximately Can.$10 million from Sustainable Technology Development Canada, a federally backed research foundation, to address the problem of canopy interference.
The company spent two and a half years working with 20 engineers developing a wireless network adapted to the specific conditions of specialty crops.
The system operates on a combination of solar and battery power to transmit data, including climate data in and around the canopy, from the orchard to the grower. The presence of pests such as codling moth is tracked via traps equipped with cameras, which monitor activity and allow insect counts without physical inspection.
A weather station is located every 100 acres, a trap every 10 acres, and pheromone puffers are distributed at a rate of one per acre.
The data allow growers to fine-tune pest-control measures, such as pheromone releases.
While there are no firm numbers on potential cost savings to growers, Cara Nelson, general manager of the Okanagan Kootenay Sterile Insect Release Program, said the system could help reduce the cost of controlling codling moth. (The program’s activities are funded by property taxes.)
“If it shows that it could be done for less money, and provide the same or better service, then it would be fantastic,” she said. “We are hopeful that it will be something that could reduce the cost for our stakeholders.”
Semios provides the service to 50 growers in Canada, while Wilbur-Ellis Co. makes it available in the United States, where about 20 farms have signed on. More than 2,000 acres in Washington, Idaho, and Michigan subscribe to the service, at a cost of $150 an acre.
“This thing is operational out in the middle of an orchard in the middle of nowhere, with no infrastructure,” said Greg Pickel, manager of the Yakima branch of Wilbur-Ellis. “You can basically build the system and it’s operational. That’s what intrigued us. That’s a leap over the systems that are available. We look at a lot of different systems, but this one truly gives a farmer the ability to get a micro look at his orchard.”
The value to growers lies in the finer grain of information that emerges, and the promise of savings as pest management costs—both for labor and materials—drop. Pickel said this in turn promises to boost orchard productivity.
“You don’t have to run out there to make your decisions,” he said. “You could literally get up and start your day downloading information to help you make those key management decision before you even head out the door in the morning.”
And make no mistake—growers will still have to head into the orchard, but Pickel said Semios’s system gives them a better idea of where to focus their efforts rather than having them spend time looking for trouble.
“This system does not replace eyes in the field, but it would definitely give you direction,” he said. “It removes the guesswork.”