Using Wireless Soil Moisture Sensors for More Efficient Strawberry Farming – the Mäkelä Farm Case Study
Strawberry farming is a highly capital intensive business, and operational costs can be enormous. Farmers say that only the very large or very small farms can turn strawberry farming profitable in Finland. Mäkelän Mansikka Oy, a mid-sized strawberry farm in Eastern Finland, however, proves that it's enough to be a very smart farm to grow strawberries efficiently and sustainably.
This case study describes how the Mäkelä strawberry farm uses wireless soil moisture sensors for growing strawberries in a smarter way!
The Mäkelä Strawberry Farm – Brief History
The history of the Mäkelä farm dates back to 1980 when Veijo and Raija Mutikainen started their agriculture business in Kesälahti in Eastern-Finland with livestock and farming. Strawberry became their main production crop in 2000.
In 2008-2010, Jaana and Antti Tolvanen and Jussi Mutikainen, took over the farm. The new generation of ambitious and result-driven entrepreneurs accelerated the farm development by gradually converting more land for strawberries, organizing the resources and responsibilities in a more structured manner, deploying sustainable and ecological smart farming practices, and advanced technologies. Today, the cultivated area covers up to 40 hectares of land, and many varieties of strawberries are grown.
The Mäkelä Strawberry Farm Today
The Mäkelä’s farm uses advanced and up-to-date equipment and machinery all the way. The office and operational facilities have been modernized recently. The seasonal staff and pickers are provided with newly renovated and convenient accommodation and appropriate facilities during their stay. In the summer, almost all the energy needed at the farm, including cooling, irrigation, and applying fertilizers, is produced sustainably with a 52 kW solar power plant. The excess electricity is sold to the local energy utility. The berries are delivered to the market daily with the farm's refrigerated vehicle. During the growing season, the company employs up to 150 people.
The Mäkelä farm uses drip tape irrigation and automatic, real-time soil monitoring. Irrigation water and nutrients are fed directly to the plants' base, below the plastic cover. Irrigation and fertilization are controlled automatically so that the plants are provided with the right amounts of nutrients according to their growth stage, weather conditions, and soil moisture.
Cultivating the right mix of strawberry varieties and other advanced smart farming practices have enabled the Mäkelä farm to optimize harvesting. They have smoothened out the crop peaks and extended the duration of the growing season – from mid-June to early October. The extended season allows Mäkelä farm to produce fresh strawberries to the market for a longer period, offer employees and pickers longer working cycles, and use production equipment more efficiently.
The Berry Farm of the Year 2019
In 2019, the team Mäkelä's hard work and extensive development of smart farming practices were rewarded with the regional berry farm of the year award in the North Karelia region.
Wireless Soil Moisture Sensors in Strawberry Farming
Mäkelä farm monitors its 40 hectares of cultivated land area with a total of 26 Soil Scout wireless soil moisture sensors. The sensors are buried at a depth of ~ 10 cm. Each field block is monitored with at least one sensor, while the largest blocks have two sensors installed.
How Soil Data Helps Mäkelä Farm in Decision Making?
Soil Scout sensor can measure three data points: soil moisture, temperature, and salinity. The team in Mäkelä farm analyses the data daily using laptops and smartphones. They use all of the three data points to support their decision making.
Here's a rundown of how Mäkelä farm uses the Soil Scout data in optimizing their strawberry farming practices.
1. Soil Moisture Data
Soil moisture is the most critical data for the Mäkelä farm. They analyze moisture in combination with salinity for planning irrigation timing and dimensioning the right amount of water for each block.
2. Soil Temperature Data
Mäkelä farm uses soil temperature data for two purposes. It helps the team to determine the optimal timing for planting. On the other hand, temperature data can be used for frost protection. The team has placed one sensor on the ground surface, and they receive email notifications automatically when the temperature drops below two degrees of centigrade.
3. Soil Salinity Data
Soil salinity data provided by Soil Scout is one of the tools Mäkelä's team uses for optimizing the timing and dimensioning of fertilizers. Timing is critical when applying inputs to ensure efficient use of expensive materials.
The Benefits of Soil Monitoring in Strawberry Farming
Data-driven Decision Making
By monitoring soil conditions below the ground, the Mäkelä team can make fact-based decisions.
· The moisture data helps them to optimize irrigation and soil moisture for best crop productivity.
· Soil temperature data tells the team the right time for planting and when frost protection is needed.
· With the salinity data, they can optimize dimensioning and timing for fertilizers.
· With up-to-date underground soil data, the farm can forecast more accurately how long the growing season is likely to continue.
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