An eye for farming: Coloma vineyard incorporates drone technology

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Joe Herman is owner of Karma Vista Vineyards in Coloma. Herman decided to enlist the help of a drone company in Southwest Michigan to help keep an eye on his crops. (Don Campbell | HP Staff)

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

COLOMA — Joe Herman has looked into new ways of getting the most out of his crops, which included collecting soil data and adding micronutrients to his land.

Now he’s embracing a technological approach for his wine grapes.

As owner of Karma Vista Vineyards in Coloma, Herman is enlisting Great Lakes Drone Company to provide aerial data management and consultation for this year’s growing season.

Using an unmanned aerial vehicle, more commonly known as a drone, Herman is hoping to redefine how to manage his fields this year.

“It gives us one more tool in making the perfect fruit,” Herman said. “The quality of the fruit determines the quality of the wine. It gives you perspective on what you can get from the ground.”

Herman learned of the use of drones in agriculture through several news outlets in the western part of the U.S. Then he met the owners of the Great Lakes Drone Company during the agriculture fair hosted by the Michigan State University Extension in early February.

Coupled with his interest in the subject and the happenstance meeting with the Watervliet company, Herman wanted to know more.

Reyna Price, sales and marketing director for Great Lakes Drone Company, said Herman signed up after further discussions on how they could save him time and money.

“We got a lot out of that agriculture fair,” Price said. “We were there to try and educate people on how technology could go hand-in-hand with farming.”

The timing worked for Herman, who opens Karma Vista Vineyards for the season on Friday.

Herman said he realized this form of technology with vineyards is still in it’s infancy, but wishes to be ahead of the curve.

“You find as you get older, you only have so many vintages left,” Herman said. “We sell grapes to other wineries across the state because we use only about a quarter of what we grow.”

The buzz on grapes

Herman’s family has been farming in Coloma for 170 years. He’s a sixth-generation grower and his son makes it seven generations as the vineyard’s winemaker.

In addition to their cherries and peaches, Herman said they grow 10 variations of wine grapes.

The Karma Vista site in Coloma makes up 90 acres, while Herman Farms in Bainbridge Township is 360 acres. The 450 acres together proves to be a lot of ground to cover for Herman and his family, which is where drone oversight comes into play.

The drone overflights are expected to provide them with real-time data to make cost-effective decisions in vineyard health, disease and nutrient management.

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A photo of a drone that the Great Lakes Drone Company uses to take video and pictures. Drones like this one will be used to oversee rain and soil levels on Joe Herman’s farm. (Photo provided)

These flyovers will take photos to show various stages of water accumulation, measure growth and use thermal imaging to give insurance companies an idea of what’s lost in the event of a flood or drought.

“The main goal is to give him a better yield at the end of the season,” Price said.

Herman said he and his workers normally had to watch for changes in water and growth from the seat of a tractor, whenever they would drive up and down every row.

“You get good at trying to spot a difference in your crops,” Herman said. “But sometimes that’s not enough. We’ve gone into soil testing and applying micronutrients into the soil. There are a lot of things out there that you can feed into the soil. The soil feeds the vine.”

Mapping the fruit belt

Because of the weather in Southwest Michigan, Price said Great Lakes Drone Company wants more growers to know they offer this service.

“We cant wait to see how it works,” Price said. “Not only can we collect data on the health of crops, but we can find crop damage for crops that succumb to that strange Michigan weather.”

They started planting grapes about 15 years ago. However, he introduced juice grapes at first, before adding wine grapes.

As time went on, Herman said they decided to open a winery of their own instead of just selling grapes to other businesses.

So, being the first at using drones to keep an eye on his crops should come as no surprise.

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Pilot Kyle Dorosz and operator Brea McGaffey manage a drone through a remote tablet for Great Lakes Drone Company. (Photo provided)

To start out, Herman said he wants the drone to survey 80 acres at the Coloma site every other week. The idea is to get a baseline and a different view as his crops get different foliage and sprout in late May. The drone’s data and mapping will come into play as the season progresses and dryer spots begin to develop.

“We are focusing on soil and the vineyard’s health at our operation,” Herman said. “Everything is about the air and water drainage. This gives us a look of the contour of the land – from the air we can spot those pockets in the vineyard that are struggling more than others.”

When asked if he’s worried the new strategy won’t make a difference, Herman references a common motto among growers.

“If you’re not making some mistakes, you’re not doing enough,” he said. “It’s great to have a job where you can pour yourself into your work and pour your work into a glass. I’m 61 years old and excited about the new things to come.”

Contact Tony Wittkowski at twittkowski@TheHP.com or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on March 2, 2017)

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