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Being an ecoation Agronomist


Today we are meeting Riley Riddell, ecoation Agronomist, to learn about his expertise and his thoughts on data-informed growing.

Riley is a Kwantlen Polytechnic University graduate with a diploma in Sustainable greenhouse production as well as Production management. He has worked as a research assistant, plant tech, nutrient manager and now ecoations agronomist. He has worked in cranberry fields, tomato, pepper and cucumber crops both conventional and organic.

What is an agronomist?

Riley: The main job of an agronomist is to be a resource for the growers and greenhouse staff. Agronomists wear many hats depending on what crops they work with and what growing strategies are being employed. Agronomists need to have a grasp of plant nutrition, soil science, entomology, greenhouse management and more. We work across the greenhouse team to try and grow their crop in the most efficient way by identifying problem areas and proposing realistic solutions. Agronomists commonly test drive new horticultural technology and consult with greenhouse managers to implement these technologies. In summary, agronomists are the go-to people to help make plant-centric decisions.

What does a day in the life of an ecoation agronomist look like?

Riley: When I’m going to be in the greenhouse I always start early. I may be working in cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, organic or conventional. I like to check in with the grower/supervisor on shift to get a sense of what's going on in the greenhouse – knowing their problem areas and focus is key. Then I will make my way through the crop on the OKO (ecoation’s grower assist platform) to thoroughly scout for pests. I also note nutritional deficiencies, crop work problems and other crop health observations. At the end of the crop walk, I will provide an assessment report to the grower/IPM manager about what was seen and review the data that has been collected over the last week. This can help inform the decisions being made going forward. I help make decisions around ordering biological controls, spot treatment vs blanket sprays, climatic control setpoints, growing practices, labour training and more. At the end of the visit, the OKO scout cart gets sanitized and the data gets uploaded to the ecoation server. After my time at the greenhouse, I will spend the rest of my day checking on customers, analyzing data, creating reports and providing remote assistance through the ecoation platform.

What does ecoation bring to the field of Agronomy?

Riley: Traditionally most crop observations have been done on a crop cart with pen and paper. The OKO allows the digitization of all the information an Agronomist or Scout would collect while making their way through the greenhouse. When the presence of a pest or disease is reported it gets stored in the OKO with its exact location, the label for the issue, and the severity of pressure. Climate data is automatically recorded for every square meter of the greenhouse. Crop registration can be inputted directly into the LCD, which is a major innovation. We collect videos of the head, and canopy and automatically count fruit. This information gets uploaded at the end of the day to ecoation’s servers, analyzed by both humans and machines to produce an interactive web platform for growers to get the information they need to make decisions on their crops. ecoation also provides observations from a panel of crop advisors to give extra eyes and insight into your greenhouse.

What kinds of issues does this technology solve?

Riley: For a long time, the science behind growing has been based on observations and experience. Experienced growers have observed their crops for long enough to have the intuition of how to react to the ever-changing conditions around them. Through years of trial and error, they have managed to get their crop to respond in the correct way. What the ecoation platform is trying to achieve is assisting growers to understand their crop with quantified insights that can be compared week to week, season to season, to help improve the efficiency of the operation. This technology enables them to grow more food for less. We seek to digitize insights and records across the organization, empowering growers, IPM managers, and labour managers with operational visibility and the capability to perform historical comparisons. Improving communication with this technology is an important step towards a more efficient greenhouse strategy. There are many working cogs to keep track of in the greenhouse. With the Ecoation platform, historical data is all kept in one place.

What needs to be considered when implementing data-driven solutions?

Riley: Deep correlations with large data sets that help us understand the relationships between all the working cogs in the greenhouse. Growing is an art and a science. Growing crops through human understanding (art) has always been augmented by data (science). With ecoation, the data is increased and digitized and there is something to be said about our ability to find patterns and commonalities after being exposed to the greenhouse for so long – data can confirm these patterns. What’s missing from a lot of data-driven solutions is the human touch. At ecoation, I think one of the main benefits is you get the data to make your own decisions, but you also have remote advisors and consultants that can provide extra information in areas you need it.