Farm drone firm turns to useful bugs amid pandemic | Nursery


SALEM – Like virtually every company, the COVID-19 pandemic has been unkind to Viewpoint Aerial Agriculture.

The Salem-based company was one of the first to fly drones commercially over farms and equipped with multi-spectral and infrared cameras to identify areas where crops may be stressed by pests, disease or drought.

But when the pandemic exposed the weaknesses in the food supply chain last year, growers decided they couldn’t afford this kind of extra service.

“We lost 100% of our business,” said Josh Murphy, who founded Viewpoint Aerial Agriculture with his wife, Rhiannon.

It became clear that they had to come up with something new – something that would offer their customers guaranteed cost savings, Murphy said.

It turned out that the answer would come in the form of tiny, beneficial insects.

Viewpoint Aerial Agriculture has partnered with Parabug, a California company specializing in the use of drones to dump insects in fields that can help farmers control herbivorous pests without the use of chemical pesticides.

Biological control of pests is growing in popularity as a management tool, Murphy said, although it can be a time and labor intensive process. For a 20-person ground crew, it could take several hours for the insects to spread over 100 acres.

Drones, on the other hand, can do the same job with a single pilot in a fraction of the time, Murphy said.

“It’s a huge saving,” he said. “As of December 1st, we’ve saved our customers nearly $ 100,000 on handcrewing costs.”

Viewpoint Aerial Agriculture operates in two main supply areas. In the Pacific Northwest, they serve customers in the Willamette Valley, Columbia Gorge, and parts of southern Oregon to northern California. Some of the most popular crops are potatoes, grapes, hops, berries and, more recently, hemp.

During the rainy fall and winter seasons, Murphy and his family move south to Florida where they work with local produce and citrus growers. There they began to make up for their post-pandemic losses after becoming certified with Parabug.

“We’ve flown about 2,500 acres since early December,” Murphy said.

Parabug’s patented system mounts a pair of clear, cylindrical containers loaded with beneficial insects to the bottom of drones, flies 15 to 20 feet above the ground, and gently releases the insects into fields and orchards.

The system was originally developed to throw predatory persimilis mites into strawberries, but has since expanded to other commercially raised beneficial insects such as green lacewing and non-stinging parasitic wasps.

These insects have been shown to be effective in controlling other harmful agricultural pests, Murphy said.

“Some of them are general predators, others are host specific,” he said. “Instead of relying on a spray and getting into a hard-to-reach place under a leaf, these predators will look for them and keep looking for you in the field.”

The aerial application makes this management tool more affordable, Murphy added, saving 50-75% compared to the cost of ground teams.

While Murphy expects Viewpoint’s traditional imaging business to gradually return when pandemic restrictions are lifted, aerial applications of beneficial insects are likely to make up the majority of flights over the next few seasons.

“We have had great success with this technology,” he said.