With a yield potential of 1,000 cartons or more per acre, producers abhor plant skips caused by errant iron.

That is why only the most skilled tractor drivers are allowed to cultivate and commanded to drive slowly to preserve tiny, prized plants.

Minimizing cultivator blight is also why vegetable production regions are about the only place you still see “belly” tool bars for cultivating, listing and fertilizing. These mid-tractor tool bars allow operators to continually look forward and down to minimize plant losses.

However, with the increasing use of 80-inch beds to get more plants per acre, the belly tool bar is becoming impractical, especially farming three 80-inch beds. Hanging enough to cover that span beneath a tractor mid-section is cumbersome. Growers must use rear cultivators, and that is when the tractor driver needs a second pair of eyes.

Now drivers can have just that…. a camera mounted on a cultivator that automatically adjusts the cultivator tool bar only up to 10 inches laterally as it precisely follows the plant line independent of the tractor’s movement.

Much of today’s precision agriculture technology has evolved around satellite-driven Global Positioning System (GPS) technology and camera-generated images of fields captured on computers. From Europe comes a completely new use for cameras and computers in farming. It’s called the Eco-Dan Guidance System.

“GPS tells you where you should be. This new technology tells you where something actually is.” said Niels Andrews, technical development manager for Local Positioning Systems (LPS), the U.S. distributor for the camera-guided Eco-Dan Guidance Systems.

Eco-Dan is a Danish company that married a computer, tool bar-mounted digital camera and a hydraulic control valve to guide a cultivator precisely down a plant row. It is so accurate it can get almost too close to the plant without damaging it, as one Salinas Valley grower learned.

The digital color camera processes 25 pictures per second. A computer sends electrical signals to the hydraulic control value that moves the implement laterally to the correct working position center on the row.

A cab-mounted monitor gives the driver control of how close to cultivate.

So far, LPS, based out of California’s Central Coast John Deere dealer, Pringle Tractor, Co. with stores in Salinas and Watsonville, Calif. has sold almost 40 of the $16,500 units in the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys, on California’s Central Coast and in Arizona. According to John Inman, retired University of California cooperative extension agricultural engineer, now an independent consultant in Salinas, the units can pay for themselves in short order in cost savings.

Inman said one grower who purchased the system went from cultivating 25 to 30 acres of vegetables per day of three 80-inch beds with six vegetable rows per bed to 40 acres per day with one tractor. It was enough increased efficiency to eliminate the use of one cultivator.

That represents a savings of $10 per acre, not including the savings of parking a tractor and cultivator.

Another producer, said Inman, increased cultivating speed from 2 to 2.5 miles per hour to 3 miles per hour because of the accuracy of the camera-guided cultivator. This represented a cost savings of $3 per acre each time he cultivated. With closer cultivation, this same producer has reduced his weeding costs by $50 per acre.

“Considering the price of the system, the savings in weeding costs alone would pay for the system in 330 acres of use,” noted Inman.

Daryl Jensen, a Chualar, Calif. grower who was one of the first to buy the Eco-Dan Guidance System in July 2002, said because he can cultivate closer than ever before, his hand weeding costs have been reduced by 40 to 50 percent.

“There is no way we can cultivate visually as close as we can with the camera-guidance system,” said Jensen.

Jensen initially set up the LPS system to cultivate within 1.5 inches of the plants, “but that was too close. We did not take any plants out, but we were shaking the plants and disturbing them. Now we have the cultivator set to get within 3 inches of the plant, and we are still seeing significant savings,” said Jensen.

Jensen purchased the guidance system when he switched to three, 80-inch beds for his Romaine lettuce and was forced to use a rear-mounted cultivator.

Jensen lists with GPS and applies dry fertilizer at the same time. He has not used the camera-guidance system to inject fertilizer when he cultivates, but other Salinas growers are using the Eco-Dan system for double duty and gaining additional savings and greater fertilizer efficiency, said Inman.

“The Eco Dan system complements GPS’ accuracy,” said Jensen.

“I do not want to replace jobs because we will always need good people to farm in the Salinas Valley. What I want to do is reduce my costs so I can continue to hire people,” said Jensen. “This new technology makes it easier and less tiring for tractor drivers to list and cultivate.”

“The Eco-Dan System camera system is as accurate at the end of the day as it is at the start of the day,” said Inman. The camera does not become tired like a tractor driver would after a 10-hour shift of guiding a cultivator.

Andrews began working with the Danish system three years ago. “In Europe, it is a gardening tool. When we started working with it in Yuma, Ariz. we tore it apart using it. The heat in Yuma melted the plugs off the camera,” he said.

“The digital camera has always worked well. It was the mechanical aspects of the equipment we had to make more rugged for the American market,” said Andrews. “We have done that, and the units we have sold are holding up well to heavy use.”

The key to getting the cultivator to follow the plant row exactly is the camera’s capabilities to distinguish plants in light and shadowy conditions.

“With GPS or the best planter operator, it is impossible to plant a perfectly straight row under our current cultural conditions,” said Pringle Tractor sales manager Kenny Dozier. “The Eco-Dan System compensates for the inevitable crooked row.”

Inman said the guidance system also “has a lot of potential for narrowing the spray band for pesticides and foliar nutrients. Reducing the width of the band over the plant row reduces your cost of material,” he said.

“Everything we try to do today in farming is to marry technology with existing farming practices to be more efficient,” said Dozier. “Competition is too great not to become more efficient. Wide beds to gain more plants per acre, drip irrigation, GPS technology, and the Eco-Dan system... all of these things are to improve efficiency.

“You cannot continue to farm utilizing old technology and people are investing in new technology, even in the tough agricultural economy we see today. When they can see a payback in a year or two, farmers will buy new technology,” said Dozier.

e-mail: hcline@primediabusiness.com