South Carolina farmer Richard Rentz works with Clemson precision agriculture engineer Kendall Kirk to improve efficiency and profitability.
The past 12 months have been largely profitable for South Carolina farmers, but challenges — beyond the regular ones of bad weather, invasive pests and blight from disease — are on the horizon. That makes the coming year far more uncertain in an already unpredictable industry.
Clemson University can’t change economic uncertainty in the agriculture industry any more than it can alter the weather patterns that affect farmers’ crops. But university researchers are developing new technologies that can help. Research that is designed to improve farm profits when times are good, reduce losses when times are bad and help them plan.
Pioneering Innovative Farming Technology
Raised in the suburbs of South Carolina’s capital city, Clemson precision agriculture engineer Kendall Kirk grew up knowing relatively little about farming — beyond what he saw in his family’s backyard garden or learned while cultivating the occasional food plot in preparation for deer season.
Nearly three decades later, he is part of a precision agriculture program at Clemson that is pioneering innovative farming practices designed to make South Carolina agriculture competitive with the world.
“Farmers are among humanity’s greatest stewards of the land and its resources,” says Kirk. “We’re building a storehouse of data that will provide answers to the farmers of tomorrow — farmers who will have questions we never even thought about asking. At the same time, Clemson helps today’s farmers work smarter, not harder.”
Answers For Tomorrow
Kirk, his colleagues and their respective students — in partnership with farmers across South Carolina — collect data on everything from plant height and nitrogen levels in leaf tissue to how much water different sprinkler heads distribute in a field and the optimal speed of peanut-digging and cotton-harvesting machines. Clemson gathers and sorts that information the way farmers cull their crops, pairing the healthiest data findings with researchers’ boots-on-the-ground experiences to provide answers.
He has also participated in the development of yield-monitoring technologies for key South Carolina crops, including hay and peanuts. And his Clemson map-based software for zone soil sampling enables farmers to inexpensively practice variable-rate fertilizer management; ongoing work will soon make this tool much more accessible and versatile.
Precision Ag On The Farm
Bamberg County farmer Richard Rentz, a Clemson agricultural engineering alumnus and current chairman of the South Carolina Peanut Board, is not afraid to try new things. Especially if there’s a cool factor involved.
The 65-year-old, fifth-generation farmer and Clemson alumnus (agricultural engineering ’78) will one day pass his 1,000-acre farming operation down to his two sons. But in the meantime, he continues to research and employ precision agriculture technology in his fields, learning something new sometimes daily.
Rentz rotates a crop of cotton, corn and peanuts, and he’s developed a successful niche market in green peanuts. Peanuts are where he’s looking for future growth, but the rotation with cotton naturally breaks the disease and nematode cycle.
Although precision agriculture is relatively well developed for crops like soybean and corn, which is farmed more extensively in the Midwest United States, for rotational crops like peanuts, precision ag technology is still in its infancy. That makes what Clemson is doing in South Carolina not only relevant but revolutionary.
Seeing The Big Picture
A system that automatically adjusts the depth of a digger has been installed and operated successfully on Rentz’s tractor for several years. The hope is to license it to a manufacturer so that farmers everywhere can benefit from the technology.
Rentz also employs automatic-rate controllers that help him spray less herbicide in his fields. Variable-rate fertilizer technology is another tool, and it has helped him identify more specific spots that need fertilizer, reducing yield problems and waste associated with over-fertilizing.
For the past two years, Rentz has employed drone technology. Flying his DJI Phantom Pro, which Kirk’s team initially demonstrated for him, Rentz now regularly surveys his 1,000 acres more easily and completely than ever.
“I can actually take it up and go down to the other end of the field. I can get down low and see if I’ve got a good stand. I can see small weeds earlier. I can cover a whole field much quicker with a drone than walking it or even driving it,” Rentz explains. “Just take that drone up a little bit, and you can judge how much you’ve done.”
With the research and technology from Kirk and others at Clemson, Rentz says it has broadened his view of what’s possible. PG