Never Sitting Still

Always open to new ideas, this California farmer cuts through the ever-increasing demands of farming with a cutting-edge approach.

By Richard Banks | Photos By Christian Parley

Rietkirk, a third-generation farmer, says he started employing precision ag techniques in the early 2000s.

Rietkirk, a third-generation farmer, says he started employing precision ag techniques in the early 2000s.

Peter Rietkerk doesn’t necessarily consider himself a computer geek, but a farmer looking for an edge.

In addition to monitoring moisture in his fields using his iPad, he’s turned his truck into a rolling, computerized office. He sends and reads emails, watches the markets, monitors his own weather stations and makes calls, all without having to make the drive home. He was also a relatively early adapter of GPS technologies and variable field applications, and has recently stepped up efforts to study his soil on a near-granular level.

They’re all investments that already have or probably will pay off in the form of better yields for this San Joaquin Valley farmer. Yet each requires a commitment of time, faith and money, and each is a little bit of a gamble, Peter says, echoing plenty of other like-minded producers. “When you’re doing one of these projects, you’re paying for it before you earn your production. It’s something that you’ve got to remain committed to, because you know, or at least hope, in the long run it’s going to pay off.”

Fortunately for Rietkerk, it has, more often than not.

Soil Rx, Probes and Pulse Irrigation

“We started doing precision ag back in the early 2000s,” says Rietkerk, a third-generation farmer who raises winter wheat, tomatoes, cotton, corn and alfalfa, and more recently pistachios and olives. “We were testing the soil and then using GPS to amend it and fertilize, and vary the seed rate. We’ve continued that throughout the years and just made our ground better and made our production go up.”

Moisture monitoring via an iPad

Moisture monitoring via an iPad

Through a better understanding of his soil quality and what he needed to do to improve it, Rietkerk says he’s seen his yields increase substantially over the years. For instance, fields that once produced 30 to 35 tons of silage corn per acre, have increased by as much as 30%. So, when he decided to plant his pistachio and olive trees about 5 years ago, he figured he’d go a few steps farther with technology.

With the help of farming consultant Jim Yager, Rietkerk studied the soil on the 210 acres of what are now orchards. Then, based on what they learned about the soil’s conductivity, texture and type, the two men carved the orchards into zones and wrote a customized “prescription” for each to improve growing capacity. That formula includes variable rates for amendments, fertilizer and irrigation that are applied using GPS technology. “We don’t put a cookie cutter system in where everything gets the same,” says Rietkerk, “but put materials where they belong in the field.

“It may not be cutting-edge technology anymore,” he says, “but it still works for me.”

His use of moisture monitors is, however, forward-leaning. In each of 9 zones, Rietkerk placed multiple probes, from 12 to 60 inches long and each with monitors at various depths that measure moisture movement at 15-minute increments. The probes and their monitoring software, developed by PureSense, not only allow Rietkerk to see when his plants are too dry, but when they are too wet as well. “When the soil is saturated,” says Yager, “the plant can’t take any more water. Photosynthesis, respiration and transpiration stop. If you saturate the soil, the trees can’t breath; they can’t get oxygen.”

You’re not only harming the plants, but also wasting water and money, says Rietkerk, which is one of the reasons he’s begun applying water for shorter, more frequent periods during the day, using drip irrigation. “For instance, I still flood the cotton fields, but for my trees and alfalfa, we’ve got it set up to where you can fully automate the drip irrigation and they can be pulse irrigated. We can even add fertilizer. We’re going to start doing that here in the next couple of years.”

“The idea,” says Yager, “is to spoon-feed the crop as it needs [the fertilizer]. We don’t eat everything we need for a week at one time. The same is true for plants.”

Tina, Peter’s wife; two of their sons, Richard and James; and James’ wife, Megan

Tina, Peter’s wife; two of their sons, Richard and James; and James’ wife, Megan

What the Future Holds

Many of the improvements Rietkerk has already undertaken help his operation for the current season. Yet they’re also designed to improve efficiencies and yields farther down the road.

“We can look at where our water is going, and the fertilizer and seed rates. We’ll do that for a number of years so we can gather all the data and come up with a plan for the future. The more data you can gather through the years, the better your decision-making process is going to be.

“It’s important to know that all these things aren’t just for me today. It’s a commitment to learn and make this operation even better. I’m not building this just for me. I’m building it for them,” Rietkerk says of his four boys, ages 22 to 28.

One of those boys, James, plans to come back to the farm in the next 3 years, as part of the family’s succession plan. James, 26, who now manages a strawberry operation, appreciates his father’s willingness to try new things.

“It’s exciting to be part of that,” he says, “because it’s new, exciting and innovative. It really allows us to be more precise. And we’re just seeing the tip of the iceberg in terms of what we’ll be able to do in the next couple of years.”

His dad agrees, noting he’s considering using a yield monitor on his pistachios when the trees start to produce in another year or so. That decision is based in part on how his HayBoss yield monitor currently helps his operation. He’ll also continue testing his drip irrigation in his alfalfa.

“The verdict is still out on that,” says Rietkerk. “I think we have to get the gopher problem fixed,” he adds, noting the varmints like to chew on the lines. “That’s probably the biggest drawback on drip irrigation, but there are a lot of positives. You need less water, but get higher yields.”

“New technologies and new products are great,” adds James, “but it’s all how you use them and custom fit them to help your operation. That’s what the fun part is—taking something and making it work for you.”

Again, dad agrees, and adds, “I’m sure there’s more that we can do and a lot more I want to do, but in this business you still have to make the right decisions in farming.”

The human factor is what ties it all together, Rietkerk says, “and experience still counts.”

To read more about PureSense, visit the company’s website. To read about other cutting-edge agricultural apps, see the Massey Ferguson/ AGCO blog.