Gar Tootelian: Putting Ag Technology to the Test

GAR-Tootelian-Sensor
The GAR Agronomy team tests a variety of technology products that could be of interest to its grower clients, from weather and soil sensors to irrigation and water efficiency. Photo courtesy of Gar Tootelian.

In California’s Central Valley, a diverse crop market in which Pest Control Advisors (PCAs) are the dominant players when it comes to agronomic recommendations, a significant opportunity exists for agronomic retailers to thoroughly test precision technology.

Keith Hennesay, Manager of the GAR Agronomy team, part of retailer Gar Tootelian Inc. in Reedley, CA, heads an 11-member team with a keen focus on analyzing precision technology. Hennesay works with GAR’s 35-plus PCAs and producer customers on incorporating this technology into growing regimens.

GAR has the benefit and struggle of managing arguably the most diverse crop production mixes in the country from its headquarters in the Central Valley. Corn, soybeans, and cotton intermingle with permanent fruit and nut acreage, vineyards, and high-value vegetables and fruits within the valley. The challenge of increasing regulations continuously bends and changes the rules of engagement, in particular when it comes to water efficiency and pest control strategies.

“The PCAs’ forte is pest management, but they are increasingly involved in nutrition and water efficiency as well,” Hennesay says. “What we’re doing is supporting the PCAs with research that is focused on precision agriculture technology and determining how these new and emerging products and software can be implemented to improve what we do.”

Because of its size and prominence in the region, GAR has been inundated with manufacturers bringing new products and ideas on the technology side. Hennesay and his team are assigned the task of figuring out which of these technologies to take to the next level, either as a tool for the PCAs or for the growers themselves.

Hennesay emphasizes that the products with the most promise will arrive from companies that are willing to customize to fit the GAR work model. “We’re always willing to look at promising new technology if the company is willing to set it up in our protocol,” Hennesay says. That requires a patient client as well: “Evaluations may take a year to a year and a half, and some companies are not willing to wait. But we need to protect our market share and provide growers with the best possible product that meets our specific criteria in our region.”

Technology Portfolio

With water efficiency and nutrient management among the most important factors weighing in on new technology adoption, it’s no surprise that new offerings from manufacturers of probes, sensors, yield monitors, telemetry, and data management software are among the most examined by the GAR Agronomy team.

One area that is getting a lot of attention is soil electrical conductivity measurements to identify soil types for nutrient and water management planning. The region’s soil composition is dictated by the existence of alluvian fans — fan-shaped soil deposits from river beds that create widely differing structural characteristics that, if identified, can be managed more effectively.

“We are able to see various physical aspects of the soil that we have not been able to take into consideration without this information,” Hennesay says. “Moisture-monitoring systems can be set up specifically for varied soil conditions, which allows us to improve the efficiency of water and nutrient application.”

GAR Agronomy is really a team effort across its 11-member department, Hennesay says, featuring individuals with complementary strengths in the various technology disciplines. In the end, it’s all about supporting producer technology adoption as they meet the challenges of improving production against increasing regulation.

“Without us evaluating and bringing these technologies to the production system, growers would be overwhelmed with the options and information,” Hennesay says. “We provide value by evaluating and bringing new ideas and technologies to help our PCAs to improve growing practices today and keeping an eye out for what might bring them value in the future.”

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