Farming has always been important to Californians. It is, and has always been, a major contributor to the state’s economy. In fact, California’s farmers account for roughly 13% of total U.S. cash farm receipts.
The water supply situation has at times been an issue of some significance for those working in agricultural sector, as it is today. Fortunately, the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada range is normally sufficient to make up for occasional quirks in the weather system; quirks that often include prolonged dry spells. The snowpack generally provides enough water to irrigate farms located in the fertile San Joaquin Valley and California’s central coastal area. At the present time however, due to an extended drought condition, a deficiency in the volume of water that is necessary to meet the state’s agricultural needs, has become an increasingly pressing issue.
Farming in California – The Issues and the Positives
Although California farmers must rely on the weather’s cooperation if their businesses are to succeed, they are fortunate to be able to put the state’s diverse and fertile soil conditions, and its Mediterranean climate, to good use. More than 400 different crops are grown in California on roughly 80,000 farms.
More than 60% of California’s agricultural crop value comes from fruit and tree nut production, with another 25% coming from commercial vegetables. California is also an important player in this country’s cotton and rice production (California is the 4th largest cotton-producing state). These two areas that have been hard hit by the current drought, with rice production having been hit the hardest. Many, if not most, of the state’s crops have in fact been affected by the drought. In some cases, harvest declines and the impact on the quality of the harvested vegetables, fruits, and nuts have been noticeable.
How Pneumatics Helps Farming
Although adverse weather conditions will always be with us, the problems they can cause can be mitigated by improvements in agricultural processes, coupled with advances and improvements in technology.
Pneumatics plays an ever-increasing role in agriculture. Pneumatics brings to the table three important elements in planting and harvesting crops: speed, precision, and consistency. Pneumatics improve efficiency. The processes being improved upon by using pneumatics in farming equipment, are not so much in the farm machinery itself, although there are notable exceptions; but in the processing and packaging of agricultural products.
You will find pneumatics products used in everything from bottling machinery and automated conveyor systems to chicken inoculators. In one of our earlier blogs, where we addressed the use of pneumatics in packaging, it was noted that, without the assistance of pneumatics, it would be difficult if not impossible to pack food so it would stay fresh, or to bottle liquids without risking contamination during the bottling and sealing process. Pneumatics can also play a key role in enabling food processing companies to maintain critical control over their operations; which in turn extends the usability time of the packaged products.
Eli Whitney perfected the use of interchangeable parts toward the end of the 18th century, and Henry Ford introduced the assembly line in the early 20th century. During that 100-year period, automation techniques steadily improved with each passing year. The second half of the 20th century witnessed the introduction of pneumatics and robotics, two technological breakthroughs that took assembly line automation processes to new heights.
Pneumatics and hydraulics work in combination to control the robotic arm, a device that has become an assembly line staple. Without the presence of pneumatic-driven controls, manufacturers would be unable to place or position small items with anywhere near the precision often required; and a degree of precision that humans cannot consistently match. Pneumatics has also played a key role in speeding up automated processes.
Technology Overview and Things to Come
One application in which pneumatics helps farmers directly is in seeding. Without the benefit of precise seed placement controls, seeding can easily become an expensive proposition. Farmers will naturally tend to err on the side of too-heavy seeding as opposed to too-light or inconsistent seed placement. The early spring-driven seed down-force systems that were designed to avoid these problems were generally unreliable. They had a tendency to experience loose fittings from the intense vibration encountered, as well as experiencing performance shortcomings due to dust and dirt contamination.
As was the case with the assembly line, a workable solution to the seeding issue involved a combination of hydraulics and pneumatics. Hydraulics controls air pressure, while the pneumatic devices precisely control the placement and depths of the seeds. Feedback also plays an important role. Factors such as soil hardness can be fed back to controllers, enabling adjustments to be made to the down force and thereby allowing seeds to consistently be placed at the correct depth.
Pneumatics are replacing the spring-driven seed placement mechanisms that continually had to be adjusted and had a tendency to break down or otherwise malfunction.
The use of industrial robotics is no longer confined to the factory floor. It is slowly expanding into the agricultural sector. Seed placement may not involve robotic arms, but harvesting fruits, nuts, or berries is a different story; and it is in this area that we can expect to experience new trends in farming. The combination of hydraulics, pneumatics, optical sensors, and a dash of artificial intelligence, is already making berry harvesting a faster and more efficient process than can be done by humans. Optical sensors are used to indicate whether a berry is sufficiently large and ripe enough to harvest. If not, it will not be picked. This concept can be expanded to other crop types as well, especially those where selective harvesting practices are the norm.
The application of pneumatics products will not in itself solve the water problems that are somewhat unique to farming in California. There is however, much activity underway including legislation, to seek new and improved water conservation and usage practices. Where pneumatics can play a key role will be to provide advanced technological solutions to seeding and harvesting issues.
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