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Podcast Ep. 107: Lettuce Thinning Tech

19 Dec 2019  •  Tony Kramer

Let’s start at the beginning - why thin lettuce?

Traditionally, a grower overpopulates the field with seed to ensure adequate yield.

Seed will be planted at about two to three-inch spacing and then wait for the plant to germinate. Once the plant germinates, a grower has an idea of yield and can make a game plan. Typically, a hand crew of about 25-60 laborers come and thin the crop by hand to get the desired spacing – usually 10,11, or 12 inches.

But with today’s challenges and labor shortages, growers are looking for technology solutions that will increase efficiency and provide less expensive ways to do that.

Enter  Vision Robotics, who developed a machine that allows a grower to thin lettuce fields with just 1 or 2 people.

Product Specialist Supervisor Bryan Feemster, who lives and works in Salinas, CA - otherwise known as the “Salad Bowl of the World” - joins this week’s episode to discuss the latest in produce technology.

Check out past episodes and guests – visit the  Episode Archive.

Learn More:
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Have a story idea or a precision ag topic we should highlight? Connect with us on social media:  Instagram |  Facebook | YouTube |  Twitter and connect with podcast host, Tony Kramer on Twitter at:  @RDOTonyK.

Agriculture Technology Podcast Ep. 107 transcript:

Tony: Hey, this is Tony Kramer, a Product Specialist with RDO Equipment Company. You are listening to the Agriculture Technology Podcast.

Every day there are phenomenal advancements being made in the field of agriculture technology. RDO Equipment Company is a leader in agriculture equipment and precision agriculture technology and is here with industry experts to bring the latest news and information from RDO and John Deere. Thanks for joining us on the Agriculture Technology Podcast.

Welcome back to another episode of the podcast. This is episode number 107. Today we are going to be talking about lettuce thinning technologies. Before we dive into the show, please take a moment to subscribe to this podcast if you haven't already. You can subscribe to the show on the many podcasting apps that we are streaming this out to such as Apple's podcast app, it's on Stitcher, Overcast, SoundCloud, as well as many others.

While you're out there, drop us a review, we'd love to hear what you think about the show. Lastly, make sure to follow RDO Equipment Company on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and catch all of our latest videos on YouTube. You can also follow me on twitter at RDOTonyK. Now with that, let's get back to the show. I'm really excited to welcome Bryan Feemster, who is a Product Specialist Supervisor with RDO Equipment Company. Thanks for joining us on the show today, Bryan. To get started, let's hear a little bit more about you and your background and how you got to where you are today.

Bryan: Thank you very much, Tony. I'm happy to be here. Basically, I started with RDO Equipment Company roughly seven and a half years ago. I started as an account manager in Salinas. After about a year and a half, I saw the growing need for developing the technology side of our operation and was really intrigued with what was going on in the direction RDO was taking the technology side. I became a product specialist supervisor and worked with the rest of our team throughout RDO and started really developing our area when it came to technology.

Podcast Ep. 107 - Quote Image1

Tony: That's great and you bring up a really good point that the technology is continually adapting and you took the opportunity to join the product specialist team not very different than my path through RDO Equipment, started as an account manager at our Lisbon North Dakota location. I too saw the opportunity on the RDO Equipment product specialist team and made the leap onto that team.

A very similar story with the RDO background. Now that we know a little bit about you, Bryan, let's talk about this lettuce thinning. It's something new as far as the technology goes, the automation of it goes, but let's go back to the beginning. Tell us a little bit about why do we need to thin lettuce?

Bryan: Traditionally what happens is the grower plants the field and overpopulates the field with seed. Reason being is it's an insurance policy to make sure that they get the yield that they need because a lot of times the crops are a pre-sold, so they have to have that yield in order to sell to the buyer.

What the grower does is usually plants the seed at about two to three-inch spacing and waits for the plant to germinate. Once the plant germinates, then they have a great idea of what's going on in the field. Traditionally, they have a hand crew of about 25 to 50 people that come through and thin the crop out so that they get the desired spacing that they're looking for such as a 10, 11 or 12-inch spacing.

With that, we've seen a decrease in available labor due to many aspects. A lot of it having to do with the younger generation has more access to education at college, and are looking to do more skilled technical jobs out there. Labor has been a major challenge for growers. Not only that, the cost to have people out there continues to rise year after year.

With these struggles, growers are looking for ways to combat this and to find ways through technology to make it more efficient, obviously, if possible, less expensive and whatnot. In comes Vision Robotics, who developed a machine that takes away all of that and takes from 25 to 50 people down to one or two people that runs a machine that is more efficient and does a better and faster job.

John: You hit it right on the head and lead me right into the next question. You talked about the struggles of finding available labor, finding enough labor, but then also the cost that's put into it to pay that labor. Obviously, a lot of people eat lettuce salads, no matter what variety of lettuce you're eating. There's a lot of lettuce that has to be grown out there and to, like you said, to thin it manually with a hand crew, with a bunch of garden hoes out there. It's probably a struggle.

That's what we really want to talk about here is the Vision Robotics thinner. You guys are doing something really great out there on the California coast with Vision Robotics and RDO Equipment. Let's talk about that. Where did this idea come from? Where are the benefits of moving to that Vision Robotics thinner?

Bryan: It was very interesting. As this progressed with this labor issue, it was a blessing where one of our own regional sales managers found this company, Vision Robotics, and brought them into the RDO Equipment Company. We started working with Vision Robotics and seeing the technology that they had and what it could do, so we started testing with them and we eventually became partners with them.

It's been a great partnership helping develop, figure out different ways that will fit in the customers' fields because everybody's running different size beds, different size rove crops. RDO became partners with Vision Robotics. We took this machine out and started testing with it to see what it could do if it could truly help with the situation that we are seeing with the labor crisis.

The very first time we took it out, we immediately saw the benefits of this machine. We worked with a number of our customers to demo and show and run it through their fields. From day one, everybody was amazed at what this machine and technology could do.

Tony: Let's talk a little bit about the machine and the technology. Tell us, how does it operate? Is it pulled with a tractor? Is it self-propelled? How does it actually thin the lettuce?

Bryan: This particular machine is pulled by a three-point on a tractor. Because the machine is so light we're able to get in with a 5,000 series John Deere tractor. Now the machine can run on three beds. Typically in our area, we're running three-bed 80s, so 80-inch size beds. We have anywhere from five to six seed lines per bed.

The machine has a hood, what we call hood that contains a computer, camera, solenoids, and lights that runs individually on each seed line. As you pull the tractor and the thinner through the field, the cameras are taking 20 pictures per second to identify the plants that are keepers and the plants that they need to take out, thin out.

With that, it's using LED lights to light up so the imagery that the cameras are seeing has a clear picture of that. The operator puts in a desired spacing of what they want to eventually have plant spacing wise. If they want 10 inches, they put 10 inches in. If they want 11, 12, so on and so forth. As this machine goes through the field, the camera determines which ones to keep, which ones to thin and then sprays a fertilizer through a solenoid and a spray nozzle to thin out those plants.

In essence, the fertilizer is burning out the plants that you do not want any longer. There's a secondary spray if you wish to have, which will spray a beneficial such as a fungicide on the keeper plants. In essence, as you go through the field, you can thin and do your beneficial spray in one pass.

Tony: I would imagine you talk about using fertilizer to desiccate the plants that we don't want anymore. Is that fertilizer also benefiting the keeper plants?

Bryan: Yes, absolutely. What we have found through talking with the growers is that when the fertilizer is sprayed it usually stops one inch before the keeper and one inch after the keeper. After you go through the field and thin it, we typically recommend about a day before you start irrigating to allow that fertilizer to burn the plant. Once you irrigate with sprinklers or drip tape, that fertilizer then goes down into the soil, into the root zones and provides that fertilizer to those plants.

Again, not only are you thinning, possibly putting a beneficial down, but you're also fertilizing the crop all in one pass.

Tony: Absolutely. You answered my last question here about the machine. Tell us about all the benefits that come with a Vision Robotics lettuce thinner.

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Bryan: The benefits of this machine not only are you going through thinning and fertilizing and all in one pass, but what we have found running through an ROI calculator with our growers, we sit down with them and discuss the costs of an operator, the costs of the machine and so on and so forth that most of the time, we have found that the return on investment of that machine is paid off within six months.

Anything after that, basically, they have saved whatever they're paying in hand labor crews out there. On top of that, you're getting the benefit, the machines are running two and a half to three miles per hour so we're able to get more acreage done in a day than a traditional hand crew.

Like I mentioned before, we're getting a better quality of thinning in the field because I'm sure as you will know when you start working in a field, hour one hour two, you've got a lot of energy, but as the day progresses, four or five, six hours, you start to tire out and the job just isn't done as well. With the machine, it doesn't tire out, it keeps going and does a perfect job.

Tony: I know exactly what you're talking about out there, walking the bean fields or sugar beet fields back in the day, I get what you're saying there. If a customer were to purchase one of these lettuce thinners, where do they go for support?

Bryan: Absolutely. With these machines, we have team setup that support, train and help manage these machines for the customer. They would contact us at RDO Equipment Company, and we would be more than happy to work with them. Every machine that is sold comes with our support team. The customer is not left on their own to figure things out.

We have a tremendous amount of experience and expertise on these machines that we can actually call into the machines wirelessly from any computer or mobile device and see what's going on with their machine without having to travel out to the field.

A lot of times, we're able to diagnose and figure out what might be going on to save the customer time, downtime, and money in the end. Then if it gets stuck on something like that, then we go out and take care of it. Everything we do with this machine comes with a full support package of our team members.

Tony: Now, I know this machine is fairly new, we've only been you guys in California, Arizona, wherever the lettuce is being grown. You guys have been doing this for a couple years now but again, it's very new. Do you have any success stories in these first few years that we've been doing this that just really put a smile on your face at the end of the day?

Bryan: Yes. One success story was one of our very first customers that we went out to, we ran through the field, thinning the field out and we came back the next day to see how well it did. Again, it was pretty new to us and also to the customer. We came out and we found that the machine did such a tremendous job. The customer was so ecstatic. They saw the benefits of it. They actually took us over to a field next door that was just thinned with a hand crew and pointed out what that field look like.

It was amazing to see the difference between this machine versus a hand crew out there. They have gone on and saved so much time and so much money that they continue to buy more machines for their operation. At this current time, they're running four machines from us and they continue to grow with that.

Tony: Yes, that's really cool. I know from my perspective in the Red River Valley, Minnesota, North Dakota, the demos, especially when you can see a side by side comparison to the practice that they are currently doing and then whatever machine you're demoing what its potential is. That's a great success story that we do see a lot when we get the opportunity to demo machines. Now, for the customer that is interested in a lettuce thinner, where can they go? With whom can they talk to learn more about this tool?

Bryan: They can contact RDO Equipment Company at []. They can come into local dealership in Salinas or Yuma or Imperial and ask to speak with the product specialist team about the lettuce thinning or any account manager out there and we can definitely help them out.

Tony: Awesome. I just want to thank you Bryan for taking the time to sit down with me and talk about the lettuce thinning technologies that you guys are doing out there on the West Coast. It's really cool. I'm so used to the standard commodity crops in the upper Midwest with corn, soybeans and wheat and whatnot. It's really neat to learn more about these specialty crops. Thanks again for doing this.

Bryan: Absolutely. Tony, thank you so much for having me. It's been a pleasure.

Tony: Visit to listen to new episodes and catch up on any that you have missed. You can also listen and subscribe to our podcast on any device or streaming service.

Tony Kramer

Tony Kramer is the Product Manager of Planting Technology and a Certified Crop Advisor at RDO Equipment Co. He is also the host of the Agriculture Technology podcast. If you have any questions for Tony or would like to be a guest on the podcast, you can find him on X at @RDOTonyK.

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