Precision planting: Potato growers on P.E.I. using GPS to plant more efficiently

As potato growers across P.E.I. plant this year's crop, many are using the latest GPS technology to guide them.

'When you're putting in 14 hour days, it's nice to have nice straight rows and not a headache'

The GPS and auto steer system that the Campbells are using cost between $40,000 and $50,000 dollars when they purchased it seven years ago. (Randy McAndrew/CBC)

As potato growers across P.E.I. plant this year's crop, many are using the latest GPS technology to guide them.

"I'd say probably 80 per cent of growers out there would have something like this," said Will MacNeill, owner of Atlantic Precision Agri-Services, in West Devon, P.E.I.

"The most common technology is auto steer, where we steer the tractor and steer the planter with one inch accuracy just to maintain perfect spacing between passes," said MacNeill.

"Making the rows perfectly straight and perfectly spaced."

The Campbells were able to plant until midnight one time last week because of the GPS technology. (Randy McAndrew/CBC)

'Creature comfort'

This is Vernon Campbell's seventh crop using the GPS and auto steer. He's a potato, beef and dairy farmer in Grahams Road, P.E.I., near Kensington.

"We've found it to be a quite an asset both in terms of crop quality and creature comfort as well," said Campbell.

"It's a lot easier to operate, when you're putting in 14 hour days, it's nice to have nice straight rows and not a headache with it."

Campbell agrees that most growers on P.E.I. are now using some form of the technology.

"It's pretty easy to tell when you're driving through the countryside," he said.

"Those with the straight rows are using GPS and those with the squiggly rows are trying to do it themselves."

The GPS technology is used to create straight, evenly spaced rows like these ones behind the tractor in one of the Campbell fields in Grahams Road, P.E.I. (Randy McAndrew/CBC)

An investment

Campbell admits his GPS system was not cheap, but has been worth it.

"It was an investment for us, it was between 40 and 50 thousand and that was seven years ago," he said.

"Over time we've been able to virtually eliminate sunburn in our potato crop and I think the quality of our crop is much improved."

The GPS technology has also helped extend the planting day for Campbell when needed.

"The other night, we planted until midnight trying to finish off a field," he said.

"We wouldn't have been able to do that without GPS."

Dean Campbell planting potatoes in a field in Norboro, P.E.I. using the GPS and auto steer technology. (Randy McAndrew/CBC)

Tight margins

MacNeill's company has been selling and servicing GPS equipment since 1997, but says sales have really taken off in the last five years.

"Nowadays margins are so tight in the potato industry and in all of farming, you just have to be very careful with what you do, not to waste any fertilizer, waste any chemicals or sprays, just to be very very efficient in what you're doing," explained MacNeill.

The GPS technology is used in several steps of the planting process.

"After they're done planting, they can come in and hill the potatoes and make the rows with the same degree of accuracy," said MacNeill.

Then the GPS system is used later in the season to steer the sprayers and control the application of the sprayer, as efficiently as possible.

"Most new tractors are built, ready for this technology," said MacNeill.

"But in the older tractors, we can just add the equipment to them to control the tractors."

Will MacNeill estimates more than 80 per cent of potato growers on P.E.I. are using the auto steer and GPS technology this spring. (Randy McAndrew/CBC)

Multiple tractors

Bigger potato operations will even have multiple tractors with GPS systems.

"When there's two tractors connected together in the field, they can share their guidance lines, that's the line that they follow, so both tractors would be on the exact same path," said MacNeill.

The technology is quite easy to use, says MacNeill.

"Once you learn the procedure of how to operate these systems, it's fairly straight forward."

His company installs 10 to 12 new GPS systems a year.

"Most basic systems start at $2,000 and they go right up to $40,000, it all depends on the degree of accuracy you're looking for and what we're connecting to," said MacNeill.

The screen in the tractor shows the path that the tractor and planter are taking in Vernon Campbell's field. (Randy McAndrew/CBC)