In the heart of Wisconsin, the Walker Cranberry Company has been cultivating cranberries for six generations, dating back to its founding in 1947 by Tyler Walker's grandfather. Tyler shares insights into the unique challenges of cranberry farming and the transformative role that drones, particularly the DJI T30, have played in revolutionizing their operations.
Cranberries, being perennial, require meticulous care throughout the year. From spring preparations, irrigation, and annual bed renovations to the critical growing season and then harvest in September and October, cranberry farming is a labor-intensive and time-sensitive process. Tyler emphasizes the importance of protecting the delicate vines from frost and ensuring optimal conditions for the berries to set.
Contrary to popular belief, cranberries do not grow in water. Still, water is crucial for harvesting, as the berries float, simplifying their extraction. Come winter, the beds are encapsulated in ice to shield them from harsh temperatures. This not only protects the vines but also facilitates essential maintenance activities, such as adding fresh sand to enhance field health.
In addition to the vines’ delicateness, renovations and bed replanting happen annually and biannually. Because cranberries don’t produce a crop until the second year, every production decision is critical, including the decision to introduce new technology. Added to that, few products are developed specifically for cranberry production; rather, they come into the row crop sector and are adapted for cranberries. “This drone is the first implement that I've seen that straight out of the box was ready to go on cranberries,” says Tyler.
Drones Come to Cranberries
Drones entered the scene when DJI announced the T30, catching Tyler's attention as a potential game-changer for cranberry farming. An early adopter, he liked the drones’ cost-effectiveness and the ability to break free from the constraints of relying on helicopters and airplanes. Tyler integrated the T30 into their marsh for fertilizer and pesticide applications.
“When we relied on the helicopter or the airplane we were on other people's schedules,” he says. “Having a drone on site, when our scout comes through and says that our bug count is starting to go up a little bit, we can have the drone out flying that afternoon. If you wait, you can cause a few percent difference in your yield and your crop quality when it comes to harvest time. With a drone, we could retake control of that.”
The drone's flexibility allows for swift responses to changing conditions, offering a level of control that was previously unattainable. Customizing treatments based on specific field needs has proven to be a significant advantage.
“The ability to treat small, do spot treatments and treat different fields differently has been helpful,” Tyler says.
The cost savings using drones for fertilizer applications have also been significant. Unlike airplanes that overspray onto roads and surrounding areas, drones precisely cover the intended area, minimizing waste and reducing costs. The newfound precision has not only optimized field health but has also contributed to substantial financial savings.
“Cranberry marshes have the beds laid out with roads around them. They're anywhere from a 2 acre to a 5 acre field with a road around it,” Tyler explains. “The airplane flies in its most efficient pattern, which out here meant it was flying across the roads. I use 10% less fertilizer because I'm not fertilizing the roads and the surrounding areas. The drone flies exactly on the area it needs to, and the overspray has been completely minimized.”
Tyler may be an early adopter, but he says he’s only been able to accomplish that by choosing the right partners. “I've really appreciated my relationship with Agri Spray Drones on the knowledge and the customer relations side,” he says. “Agri Spray not only sold the drones, but they work on them, and they have the knowledge from running their spray operations in Missouri.”
Tyler envisions expanding the use of drones on the cranberry farm, recognizing the potential for increased efficiency with a second drone.
“One guy can run a drone,” says Tyler. “It's an issue facing everybody in agriculture, having a hard time finding people to do the jobs.”
The Walker Cranberry Company's embrace of drone technology represents a significant step forward in modernizing cranberry farming. Tyler’s experience highlights the tangible benefits of using drones in agriculture, from increased efficiency and cost savings to the ability to overcome longstanding challenges in the industry.