Spirit of Rowan: Technology finds its place in agriculture

Published 12:10 pm Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Like clockwork, they glide across the concrete floor. One by one, these small, wheeled machines pick up potted plants and carry them to a precise spot several hundred feet away. After the machines conclude their portion of their work, they pick back up in another section of the expansive greenhouse facility.

The machines never tire and prevent employees from doing work that’s often tedious and back-breaking, says Bryan Abramowski, who oversees production at Rockwell Farms. In total, Rockwell Farms has eight of these semi-autonomous machines. Abramowski has given each small machine its own strange name. They don’t earn hourly salaries, but are as much a part of Rockwell Farms as the employees and plants who fill the company’s greenhouses.

Jason Roseman, who oversees sales at Rockwell Farms, says the robots often attract the most attention from prospective clients. However, the wheeled machines are just one aspect of the several automated processes at Rockwell Farms’ greenhouse facility on N.C. Highway 152.

And, for agriculture in the 21st century, it’s nearly impossible to compete without some form of technology. From smartphones to automated watering systems, agriculture focused businesses use all sorts of tools to increase yields and productivity.

The robots at Rockwell Farms, for instance, place the plants an equal distance apart, optimizing growth potential, Abramowski said.

Two other pieces of technology that maximize growth potential at Rockwell Farms include an automated watering system and roof panels that control temperature.

With the watering system, Abramowski said Rockwell Farms can hydrate plants for hours when employees aren’t present. A single watering apparatus only spans one row of plants. There’s a number of the watering apparatuses across Rockwell Farms greenhouses that can be individually set. When employees leave work for the day, Abramowski can set several watering systems to run at once or one system to run by itself.

Just above the watering system are roof panels that can be individually or automatically adjusted to suit plants. During winter months, it’s better to close  panels for warmth. In summer months, natural heat from sunlight is better, Abramowski said.

A massive, indoor greenhouse system might seem like a natural place for technology to take hold. Traditional farming operations have also turned to technological tools. Like most companies, methods of communication with customers have changed for Patterson Farm, said co-owner and Vice President Doug Patterson. However, Patterson Farm also regularly tracks weather using smarphones, uses computerized irrigation systems and pinpoints locations on the farm that need fertilizer using GPS.

“With technology, one goal is definitely to increase the yields,” Patterson said. “It’s that way in any business, though. You’ve got to look at ways to make things quicker, faster and cheaper because somebody else is already doing it.”

He said the price of Patterson Farm’s products hasn’t increased much in the previous several years. If a piece of technology leads to increased yields, Patterson Farm could, in turn, see increased profits, Patterson said.

Patterson Farm, based in Rowan County, is one of the largest tomato-producing businesses in North Carolina. Patterson estimated it’s probably the largest family owned operation in the state. Patterson, whose primary responsibility is handling sales, shipping and receiving, says his smartphone is, perhaps, most essential.

“It’s something you’ve really got to have on you all the time,” he said. “You’ve got to be connected. We used to have two-way radios to communicate, and now it’s smartphones.”

Patterson recalled a time before many of the technological advances, even before two-way radios.

“You used to just have to get in a truck and drive around until you saw the person you were looking for,” he said. “Now, I just send a text to the person I need to talk to and hear back instantly. It’s definitely a lot better than the old, bag phone.”

Despite technological advances, essentials of farming are still critical, he said.

“The most important technology now may be the computer and the smartphone, which is a computer in itself, but you still can’t get away from the tractor,” he said. “You can’t discount that. Even with all the technology we use, you still have to enjoy farming from the beginning.”

There’s still long hours of hard work, he said. And, if there’s ever a power outage, Patterson said, the essential skills ensure crops keep growing as usual.