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Embracing Drone Technology

December 11, 2020 |

In every industry, leaders are asked to do more with less as their margins are squeezed from every direction. But tobacco growers may be in a league of their own. For generations, farms of all sizes have faced decreased demand and contract uncertainty. Even in the best of years, the next year isn’t guaranteed. As a result, tobacco growers have become experts in efficiency, and widespread adoption of many-frills machinery or shiny new gadgets seems few and far between.

 

However, drones are emerging as a new tool that tobacco growers can use to monitor the condition of their crop. As drone use increases, the data collected advances in accuracy, giving growers increased awareness on what is going on in their fields. These advances also provide growers with information to help them make more informed decisions, ultimately enhancing—not replacing—tried-and-true farming techniques.

 

Drones in Agriculture

 

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), or drones, take high-quality pictures that ultimately show the performance of a crop. They reveal in-depth and up-close images of a field, giving analysts the ability to study how a crop is doing and determine whether certain processes are going wrong. Drones can also map an entire field from a longer distance, allowing a grower to see changes not visible from the ground.

 

Brandon Batten, the owner of Triple B Farms in Johnston County, North Carolina, is known around the area for his use of new technology. A few years ago, he received funding from a North Carolina AgVenture Grant to purchase a drone for his farm. Drone use in agriculture is still a relatively new concept, especially in tobacco. However, Batten has found aerial drone images to be beneficial because they help him see his tobacco fields in a different way.

 

Aerial Information

 

Through aerial footage, growers have the ability to see any storm damage from a severe weather event—and access its significance on a large scale. “In North Carolina, we get hurricanes and strong storms,” Batten says. “Drone photographs help determine plant counts after a weather event to help make quick decisions on replanting.”

 

Drones can also help identify disease issues. “Drone footage can produce images that show the visible spread of certain diseases like tobacco mosaic and black shank,” Batten says. In addition, agronomists at North Carolina State University are currently studying ways to identify and analyze nutrient levels in the plant from aerial images.

 

Irrigation and drought conditions can also be identified. Analysis of the aerial images reveals a lack or excess of water in the soil, helping growers better control the moisture levels in the field.

 

With other types of crops that are left alone for longer periods, drones are used for early pest detection. But when it comes to tobacco, it is far more likely that growers would spot an infestation from the ground first and not from a drone. “Tobacco growers are in the fields all the time,” Batten explains. “If there were pests, we would notice them way before a drone would.”

 

With the money he received from his grant, Batten purchased a drone and set up his own company that offers UAV services to other growers. Batten’s customers appreciate the maps he’s able to generate as well as his consultation and data analysis.

 

As drone technology and data analysis continue to advance, Batten looks forward to a time when growers see a bigger return on their investment in the technology. “Tobacco growers are already doing a great job at maximizing efficiency in production,” Batten says. “My goal is for drones to eventually play a bigger part in that.”

 

Back to Basics

 

While advances in technology are exciting, at the end of the day, what matters is how you use them in accordance with good practices and procedures. Sometimes, what is best is a new way to use a standard piece of machinery.

 

Matthew Inman, assistant professor and Extension tobacco specialist at Clemson University, has seen some of his growers use sprayers for their row crops and for sucker control in tobacco. “So much of tobacco production equipment is dedicated only to tobacco. It is beneficial to use a piece of machinery across all crops if possible,” Inman says. “Sometimes instead of employing the newest piece of machinery, it is more efficient to use what they already have.”

 

When it comes to new technology, that’s where Inman believes growers should focus. “Growers should remember the fundamentals of tobacco growing—pest management, soil sampling, crop rotation—and use technology to enhance those standard procedures,” he says.

 

On Triple B Farms in Johnston County, N.C., that’s just what Batten does. And thanks to his drones, his neighboring growers are better equipped to do the same.

 

 

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