Las Vegas Sun

December 21, 2014

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Space-age help for vegetable growers

RENO, Nev. - For David Peri, onions always have been pretty basic. They come out of the ground.

It's been that way since 1979 when Peri planted his first crop in Mason Valley. Since then, Peri & Sons Farms has grown into the do-it-yourself king of the onion world.

Peri, with 1,200 acres, runs the nation's largest soil-to-supermarket onion operation - planting, growing, harvesting, packing and shipping. He does just about everything to be done with onions, short of placing slices on hamburgers.

This fall, Peri is adding something to the process - high technology.

The University of Nevada Cooperative Extension is using Peri's fields to experiment with "precision farming," employing satellites, receivers, computers and other gadgets to, he hopes, grow more, better and cheaper onions.

"I'm the guinea pig," Peri said.

It's a big step for Peri who believes in some old-fashioned methods.

On most farms, onions are machine harvested. Peri's Nevada High Desert Onions are picked by hand.

"You have less bruising," he said.

But Peri is willing to try some 21st century techniques. Precision farming, tried with success extensively in the breadbasket Midwest, is relatively new to the arid Great Basin.

"I'm not aware of any other projects in northern Nevada," said Bill Chounet, a Yerington-based agriculture consultant who's developing the program with Peri and the cooperative extension.

The extension assists the state's ranchers and farmers, some of whom might adopt precision techniques if they prove successful with Peri.

This year's onion crop, grown without satellites and computers, is being processed. Results of the high-tech program, which is based on precise mapping of Peri's fields, won't show up until next fall.

"There should be increased yields and reduced costs for fertilizers," said Loretta Singletary, an agriculture economist for the cooperative extension.

Soil research started in September and continues this month as Peri prepares his fields for spring planting.

The satellite mapping system allows Peri to analyze soil in different parts of his fields and determine which fertilizers to apply in various locations.

"You can vary the rate of application of fertilizer," Singletary said. "You can concentrate on parts of the field that need it and skip others."

Before technology, Peri, like many farmers, did random soil samples and from those selected a fertilizer for an entire field.

Since most dirt looks the same, mapping removes the guesswork, allowing farmers taking samples to know exactly how it compares with the rest of the field. It also lets them return to the same spots later for additional tests.

"It's just like in your back yard," Chounet said.

"You can take a (soil) sample in a spot and the next year you want to go back and see how you did. You go back and scratch your head and say, Where did I take it? Your information isn't as good."

Equipment for the precision farming project includes a portable receiver, similar to a small television satellite dish, which receives the tracking signals from space. The system can pinpoint sampling locations within about three feet. The signal information is recorded so the sample spots can be found again.

"If we put a pound of nitrogen (fertilizer) on a square foot of ground, we can go back and look at the (crop) yield on it with comfort that we are in the same exact spot," Chounet said.

"If you dropped a quarter on the ground and logged that spot, you could go back in the dark and find that quarter. That's what the technology is all about, to be able to repetitively look at the same spot and record the data."

When it's time for next year's onion harvest, Peri will be able to look at the yields from sections of his fields where particular fertilizers were spread, then analyze the results.

Instead of using satellite signals, Peri could pound sticks in the ground to remember the sample locations.

But "you can't leave a stake in the field," he said. "With harvesting the crop, the chance of that stake staying there is pretty slim."

Along with increasing efficiency and reducing costs, precision farming could help the environment by reducing fertilizer runoff into rivers and streams.

"The water quality has yet to be determined," Singletary said. "It would take more than one farmer."

Finding more guinea pigs might be difficult because precision farming is expensive. The technology can cost from $30,000 to $250,000, depending on how much a farmer wants to do.

Since the onion project is experimental, Peri is getting a lot of free assistance. The program is costing him about $3,000.

"We are going to try to measure the change in yields," Singletary said of the programs immediate goal. "I think (growing) more onions is what we'll focus on."

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