Drone Helps Island Winery Slash Water Use

It’s not very often that I come across a new technology that is literally the best solution I have seen to many current agricultural issues. Sustainable Tourism member 40 Knots Vineyard and Estate Winery, located on Vancouver Island in the Comox Valley, has just proven how invaluable this new technology is by saving $11,000 over the past 4 months.

This groundbreaking technology recently developed by ASAP Geomatix, was installed on a drone to take super-high definition images of the 20-acre vineyard. Based in Campbell River, ASAP Geomatix is the four-year-old sister company to the well established ASAP Avionics Services. Many of ASAP’s current clients request wildlife and ecosystem information for remote regions, where HD imagery is captured by helicopter. But in the rural residential area in the Comox Valley, a drone makes much more sense. Drones are more cost effective, make no noise, are environmentally friendly (electric) and stay lower to the ground, avoiding air traffic airspace.

John Carley and Mark Sylvester of ASAP Geomatix testing the bountiful crop with 40 Knots Vineyard and Estate Winery owner Layne Craig.

Layne Craig, owner of 40 Knots Vineyard and Estate Winery saw the bigger picture. He calls himself a semi-automatic farmer, using field studies and handwriting to track what works best for his vineyard. But the data he received from ASAP Geomatix complimented his own methods, giving him measurable statistics for:

  • How healthy and vigorous the vines are (measuring chlorophyll in an ENDVI chart)
  • Plant height comparisons
  • Soil moisture content
  • Land slope and elevation
  • High definition images of their property
Mark Sylvester, Alex Sylvester and John Carley of ASAP Geomatix reviewing the maps for 40 Knots Vineyard

The maps are so high def, you can zoom in to each individual plant. This spring Craig agreed to a pilot project to test this new technology on a drone (rather than helicopter), and gain insight into how a vineyard would use the data. The value and savings Craig realized from these results blew the team at ASAP Geomatix away. Owner Mark Sylvester, Technical Development Manager, John Carley and Business Development Manager Alex Sylvester have opened up a new market to help agricultural businesses better manage their resources with accurate and relevant data.

Sylvester realized not everyone is like Craig, who took this data and ran with it, drastically reducing his water consumption, fertilizer and chemical use and saving thousands of dollars. But there are probably more farmers, viticulturists and orchardists across the country that can benefit from this technology.

Mark Sylvester of ASAP Geomatix and Layne Craig, Owner of 40 Knots Vineyard and Estate Winery reviewing the data from the pilot project

Here’s what 40 Knots saved in the past 4 months:

Water use slashed by 7/8’s compared to 2015

By looking at the moisture content map, Craig could see specific areas with less moisture retention than others in the vineyard. Once he studied this chart with plant health and plant growth, he realized that areas with high growth needed their watering cut completely, while other drier areas needed additional moisture. In other words, using drip irrigation, he only watered exactly where he needed to, cutting his consumption from 9000 min 2015 to 800 min 2016.

Fertilizers reduced by 30-35%

Craig works closely with Biofert Manufacturing Inc. to source only non-synthetic fertilizer applications for his vineyard. He adjusted his program to use the data provided by ASAP Geomatix, which allowed him to hone in on dry and less productive areas to apply compost and an organic granular fertilizer just to the areas that needed it. This “spot treatment” rather than blanket application cut his fertilizer use by nearly 35%. Next year, Craig is moving to a liquid fish/kelp fertigation application, hoping to further reduce fertilizer use by an additional 40%.

60% savings in pesticides and fungicides

40 Knots has converted all fungicides and pesticides to 100% organic, using only micronized sulphur, calcium, potassium bicarbonate and dish soap. Craig has radically reduced his costs by ordering these in a raw form directly from Biofert, and by growing well balanced and healthy plants, he is able to stay on top of any issues as they arise, reducing consumption. All these measures have resulted in a cost savings of 60% this year compared to 2015.

Crop increase of 41%

Making these changes has boosted crop production by over 40%. Even with the spring storms that reduced flowering in the white varieties and even with the sheep getting loose and deciding to munch on grapes (I could see the effects of this in the plant growth chart), crop production nearly doubled. Craig has used the ASAP Geomatix data to grow a crop balanced in nutrients and water, producing more grapes with less foliage. Some crops, like Gamay, increased from 2.3 tonnes per acre to 6.3 tonnes per acre.

Layne Craig proving the success of the project by testing the nearly ripe grapes at 40 Knots Vineyard and Estate Winery

The HUGE Okanagan potential

The Okanagan Valley and Comox Valley get a similar amount of sunshine each year (just under 2000 hours), but the high temperatures in the Okanagan increase evapotranspiration of irrigated water. There is a HUGE potential to reduce water consumption in Okanagan vineyards (not to mention chemical and fertilizer use) using this type of data. This study at 40 Knots has shown how improving the sustainability performance of an operating vineyard can save a lot of money and a lot of resources.

ASAP Geomatix will take images of 40 Knots Vineyard again next spring (by drone) to compare baselines and continue to reduce inputs while boosting outputs.

Originally written for Orchard & Vine Fall Issue 2016 (September 28, 2016).
Photo credits: Drone, Flickr – DJI-Inspire Drone
All other photos, Sustainable Tourism

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