Tractors and plows have a new companion in the farm field.
Actually, above the fields. They’re drones.
While the unmanned aerial vehicles, as drones are officially known, are not doing the plowing or harvesting, they have given farmers more control over their crops and are saving them time and money.
At one South Jersey farm the new technology is being put to use.
“We’re not your typical farmers, we think outside the box,” said Kris Wilson, co-owner of Growtopia/Sorbello Farms in Woolwich Township said.
New Jersey Department of Agriculture Secretary Doug Fisher visited Monday to learn more about drone use and even had a turn at the controls to fly it himself, a first for a state ag chief.
“Drones are obviously a technological wonder in terms of their use on farms, doing surveillance, making (spray) applications and saving a lot of money for the farmer,” said Fisher.
Drones are part of the new technology that are helping farmers to be more efficient and Wilson and farm co-owner Steve Vazquez are embracing them.
“This is the future of agriculture. It’s going to be an integral part of every (farm) operation,” Vazquez said.
The farm, which predominately produces tomatoes, is among the first in the area and in the state to begin employing drones as part of their stable of equipment.
In fact, drone use on farms in New Jersey is so new that an ag department spokesman said there are no real statistics on how many Garden State farms have them.
The drone used here is not the type most people are familiar with.
This drone has a wingspan of about six feet or more. It’s large enough to carry a four-gallon tank that can hold whatever is needed to be applied to the crops – fertilizer, pesticide, fungicide or herbicide.
Like all farm equipment, the agriculture-specific version is not cheap. Wilson said the drone itself cost about $30,000 with related equipment — camera, batteries and computer adding several thousand more.
About 20 acres of the crops at Growtopia/Sorbello Farms are being used as a “test lab” and being observed and treated this season with the new drone. This will give them a chance to even better familiarize themselves with the capabilities.
“Most importantly it does a lot of scouting for us,” Wilson said. “We can send it up with a very high-tech camera that takes imagery and lets us know what plants are healthy and what plants are struggling.”
It allows spray applications to be made in a targeted area, too, instead of an entire field.
“It maps it out. You hit the button, you tell it where to go, it takes off, does its job and returns,” Wilson said. “You save a lot of money, you save a lot of time.”
Drones are already in use in other parts of the U.S. and world in agricultural applications from use in rice paddies to vineyards and grain fields.
Fisher said officials have long talked about ways to improve farming techniques and the drone is an example now being put to use.
Wilson said they had been investigating how a drone would help their farming operations for more than couple of years and taking trips before deciding on the purchase.
The drone demonstrated Monday has just been on the farm for a few weeks.
One of the drawbacks Wilson said is the size of the batteries needed to fly the large vehicle, but expects in time technology will catch up to make them much smaller.
For Fisher, this farm visit wasn’t just a chance to see an agricultural-use drone in person, but following a demonstration by Vazquez and his son, Kaleb, outdoors during a break in the rain, the agriculture secretary took control.
With guidance from the Vazquezes, Fisher took the controls and lifted the drone off the parking area behind the farm’s tomato packing shed. With guidance the secretary took the drone airborne and then after a couple of minutes in the air, gently brought it back for a landing.
“It’s precision agriculture,” Fisher said.