It costs a lot to farm tree crops. It will probably cost more before (if?) it ever eases up. So, how can you keep investing in your orchard to maintain yield and income and still make a living? Here are my answers to that question:

• Consistently raise a large, high quality crop

• Protect and maintain orchard health

• Produce what the market wants

• Be efficient

Towards these goals, there is a tool that will reduce your pesticide/foliar fertilizer costs by an average of 20 percent without changing crop protection or spray coverage. It’s a sprayer with sensors — a “smart sprayer”. If you aren’t thinking about buying one, you should.

How smart sprayers work

Smart sprayers “look” for trees with sonar or laser “eyes”, and turn on only the nozzles when there is a target (the tree) to spray. They are available as after-market add-ons or built into the sprayer at the plant. Some models can only activate/deactivate one side of the sprayer. These models perform best in uniform young orchards with regular gaps between the trees. Others models have two or three “eyes” per side. Each eye controls half or a third of the nozzles on a side. The multiple eye models cost more, but are more flexible. They are the best units to have in an irregular mature orchard with replants, skips and/or shaded-out regions.

Smart sprayers save you money. Smart sprayers can save you around 20 percent on pesticide costs/acre compared to running the sprayer with all nozzles on. That number will go up or down depending on the orchard system. Hedgerow plantings should show less savings, especially if the nozzles are carefully set up for each particular block. Mature orchards with gaps between the trees or multiple replants should see an increase in savings. Significant savings should be seen in young plantings with gaps between each tree. Smart sprayers reduce your pesticide bill without reducing orchard pest protection. You spray your trees, not the orchard and everything therein.

A recent study done at California State University, Chico projected a multiple-eye smart sprayer cost recovery to be one to two years for a 300-acre almond orchard. That’s on a $15,000 initial investment in an aftermarket addition of the smart sprayer “eyes” and control valves on an existing sprayer. How would that work for your farm?

Here’s a rough estimate for almonds. An annual almond orchard pesticide bill can run around $250/acre. A 25 percent saving on that bill — the kind of savings that growers with smart sprayers report — is $62.50/acre/year. That number doesn’t include the diesel and time saved by stretching 5 acres/tank at 100 gpa into 6.25 acres/tank with the same coverage. That extra acreage in each tank could help come crunch time (at bloom, when wind is forecast, or when PHI is an issue).

Smart sprayers help your operation be sustainable. The first rule of drift management is “target the tree”. The smart sprayer does that for you — automatically. Off-target pesticides can drift or land on the orchard floor and be lost with irrigation or storm runoff. A smart sprayer is a cleaner sprayer.

A smart sprayer is also driver friendly. Using a smart sprayer gives the sprayer operator one less thing to worry about at the end of the row. It shuts off the nozzles automatically as you turn out of one row and then back on as you enter the next row. Note: It will spray telephone poles! The operator is free to drive, not multitask. Do you farm near roads? Smart sprayers help operators reduce spray drift near sensitive areas, and avoid spray drift fines.

Finally, more and more fruit and nut buyers are looking for evidence of “sustainable” practices. Keeping the customer happy is a key to successful business. If they want “sustainable” and you want good crop protection, a smart sprayer could be a solid answer.

Federal help in buying a Smart Sprayer

The 2008 EQIP program of the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) provided cost share money for growers in the San Joaquin Valley to buy and use “precision pesticide/herbicide application technologies” — Smart Sprayers. The goal of this program was to reduce use of VOC emitting chemicals (Lorsban EC, etc.) by 20 percent. That program paid $30/acre for a maximum of 500 acres. Contact your local USDA NRCS office to see if a similar program is available in 2009.

Reality check. Smart sprayers are not perfect. They are more complicated than a conventional airblast sprayer. There are more electronic components to maintain and to repair. Specialized technical service costs money. If the problem can’t be fixed over the phone, you have to take the sprayer to the manufacturer or pay to have them come to you. However, to get you through an application, smart sprayers can go “dumb” with the flick of a switch. If your farming operation is technology averse anywhere from the head office to the field, then smart sprayers may not be for you. Owner applicators have a better success record with smart sprayers than companies paying hourly wages to their operators.

Summary

Smart sprayers save you money without compromising coverage and protection. They have been in commercial production for over a decade. They are more complicated than standard sprayers. They are not free. They require regular, specialized maintenance. The flexible models run about $15,000. The one-side-ON-or-OFF units cost less. A smart sprayer is an investment in application efficiency that should pay dividends for years after it has paid for itself.