Canadian Apple Orchard Taste-Tests the IoT

Semios has brought connectivity and near-real-time pest monitoring to the farm, helping farmers to gain visibility and reduce reliance on pesticides.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor
Oct 31, 2014

Algoma Orchards, located in Newcastle, Ontario, is no rinky-dink farm. In fact, it's the largest privately owned grower and packer of apples in Canada. The company maintains 750 acres of trees, a packing plant and a juice factory onsite, and imports apples from Chile in order to maintain a year-round supply. The company also conducted a test last summer of an Internet-controlled pest-management system that is simultaneously high- and low- tech.

The technology, developed by Vancouver-based Semios, is high-tech because it uses networks of sensors, cameras and communications equipment to protect orchards, vineyards or any high-value crop from highly destructive pest insects. However, it's also low-tech, since the manner in which it controls those pests is by releasing pheromones to confuse and disrupt the inserts' mating rituals.

The Semios pheromone dispenser contains an IEEE 802.15.4 wireless radio used to link it to the Semios software hosted on a central server.
Algoma's farm manager, Manus Boonzaier, isn't particularly concerned with how high or low the technology deployed on the farm might be—he only wants it to work and to help him run the farm more efficiently. "Up until now, we've been fairly conventional," explains Boonzaier, referring to the farm's practices, which include the use of chemical pesticides and other practices that are prohibited on farms operating under organic farming standards. "But we try to minimize pesticide use due to the high cost [of pesticides] and the long re-entry period."

Re-entry refers to the amount of time that farmers must stay out of a freshly sprayed field or orchard, under mandate from Canada's Ministry of Agriculture, due to the toxicity of certain chemicals. After applying some pesticides, farmers cannot work in an affected area for a full 30 days. Because pesticides are sometimes applied during a period of fast growth within the orchard, Boonzaier notes, this can be a problem since it does not allow him and his crew to perform the hand-thinning necessary to maintain optimal tree health.

Using pheromones instead of pesticides to control pests is one way to enable greater accessibility for hand-thinning, Boonzaier says, but pheromones applied at Algoma have not proven as effective as pesticides. He believes that is because the pheromones are packaged in wax, designed to soften in sunlight and expel the pheromones over a period of 90 to 120 days. By design, these release the highest amount of the pheromones mid-day, since the bottles heat up in the sun. But for codling moths, Boonzaier says—significant pests in Algoma's apple orchard, and in most apple orchard everywhere—"it's the nighttime when you need to get at these moths."

Algoma Orchards is testing Semios' technology as part of a three-year grant program that Semios was awarded by Sustainable Development Technology Canada, which supports the development of environmentally friendly technologies. Last summer, to monitor and control the farm's codling moth population, Semios installed its camera-equipped insect traps, wireless sensors and pheromone dispensers across a 35-acre section of the orchard. No insecticides were used in this section. A 30-acre control section was sufficiently distant so that none of the Semios pheromones would enter it, and none of the pesticides used in the control section would contaminate the section in which Semios' technology was being evaluated.

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