How Black Gold Farms uses Agremo’s Plant Counting to optimize potato production

20% less unproductive seeds
30% shift of the seed form
95% accurate stand count

Potatoes rank high on the list of the most important crop foods in the world. More than 156 countries produce potatoes whereas more than a billion people eat potatoes regularly. In the United States, potatoes are the leading vegetable crop. At least 60% of potato production goes to the processing market, and the rest is distributed between the retail and wholesale markets. According to the NASS report from June 2022, potato processors in the 8 States used 195 million cwt of potatoes for the season. The revenue of the potato industry is expected to reach 10.557 billion USD by 2025.

Black Gold Farms is one of the US’s large geographically diverse potato producers. They grow chipping potatoes and sweet potatoes on hundreds of fields in 8 states, and they use Agremo’s Plant Counting product to obtain accurate information about stand counts on every field. As an industry leader with more than 600 employees on 16000 acres. At this scale, Black Gold Farms is constantly evolving and adapting new technologies. Their motto “Digging deeper is more than words- it’s a way of life” that speaks for itself. They are committed to producing good food and at the same time, they are using their resources wisely and sustaining fertile soils. Thanks to a network of skilled individuals who nurture long-term relationships with suppliers and customers, Black Gold Farms successfully produces high-value agricultural products.

Before turning to precision agriculture technology, the Black Gold Farms team relied on traditional methods for measuring stand establishment.  Three years ago, they decided to test the Agremo system for plant stands. Since 2020, the number of fields surveyed by drones and analyzed by Agremo’s image software has rapidly increased to include 100 % of their potato production. With Agremo field analytics AI software they can measure all plants and get the full picture of the field conditions. Agremo provides data collection and analysis that Black Gold Farms uses to compare which seeding density and seed type will result in the most successful stand establishment.

As they have different seeding densities and forms of seed per field, it is essential to measure the success rate and what drives it. 

Challenges in potato farming & AI Stand Count

It takes around 3 to 4 months for a potato seed to grow into a mature potato plant. Approximately two weeks after planting, sprouting begins and after four weeks shoots emerge. Tubers begin forming 15-30 days after emergence and plants grow flowers during that period. Potatoes are ready to harvest 90-120 days after emergence. 

Traditional plant counting has limitations as it is hard to cover large farm areas. Walking the field is labor-intensive and time-consuming. Furthermore, traditional field scouting lacks objectivity and the human process cannot fully account for the variability within and across fields. 

For successful potato crop production, the most important factors are crop establishment and stand quality which is best achieved by obtaining the plant stand information from the entire field and through precise measurements. The plant stand quality directly impacts yield, quality, and the value of the end product, as consistent plants have more of the necessary potential. Black Gold Farms strives to produce the best quality products (French fry process, chipping potatoes, sweet potatoes) at a competitive market price.

They are constantly testing different varieties of potatoes. One way to understand which one is more successful than the others is to accurately measure plant stand. With better insight into the seeds’ performance and development into productive plants, they could more easily make decisions about the further use of those seeds that do not meet the strict conditions of quality control of primary production. 

Another challenge in potato production is the type of soil and its quality. Potatoes use high amounts of nitrogen and potassium and need adequate soil levels of other nutrients. However, it is hard to estimate the potential of the land by scouting the fields on foot. With Stand Count analysis Black Gold Farms agronomy team can identify the areas where the plants are lower performing; these are areas to avoid planting or those requiring unique management

Client needs

  • Reduce lower-producing seeds
  • Produce high-quality products
  • Measure plant stand at or above 95% accuracy
  • Improve seed and planting processes

Counting plants – Traditional method

The traditional method of counting potato plants usually looks like this: an agronomist selects several locations in the field and manually counts how many plants are in a determined length of a row, (50ft). This sampling is very limited but has been the only way to calculate an approximate plant population, comparing the number of counted plants to the target population. As the sampling isn’t done for the whole field an agronomist lacks information about all plants. Furthermore, choosing the location of the manual counting of plants is subjective and will result in variability.

“As markets become more defined and customer expectations are increasingly specific, Black Gold Farms believes that we must develop greater awareness of how our crops function. Agremo provides a new window into understanding what is happening in our fields at a more granular level and how to move the needle in the best direction.”

– Bryan Bowen, Director of Agronomy at Black Gold Farms

How did Agremo approach the challenges?

Agremo organized data collection from the potato fields with the latest drone technology. Black Gold Farms was provided with custom-made solutions for map delivery. With drone imagery, Black Gold Farms was able to see their fields from a different perspective, their potential or the lack of it and they could use the collected data in the future to make smarter decisions that will cut their costs and more importantly, improve the quality of their products. With Agremo’s technology, they are improving their ability to match variety, seed type, spacing, and appropriate soils to achieve production objectives.

Stand Count analysis was used to inventory the total number of plants within fields. The system identifies areas within fields with missing plants or plants that were less performing. This analysis can be requested from the early stages of leaf development and formation of side shoots until the end of flowering. 

Since Black Gold Farms have different seeding plans in the same field, the Agremo Customer Success team set up a process and training for converting seeding maps into field boundaries which sped up the process of drawing boundaries between management zones. This internal process reduced the time spent on drawing annotations for all fields covered by the project compared to previous years (the improved process was much faster and more precise than the traditional approach).

It was very helpful that they could make an accurate border between areas where the seedling rate differed within fields and that Stand Count analysis could be performed for each unique seeding area. As a result, they could count the number of plants for each variety and compare it to its specific planting design. 

Workflow & Agremo Solutions for Automated Plant Counting

Drone, map, and Agremo app – Black Gold Farms was provided with the flight list containing scheduled drone flights for 226 potato fields and Agremo supported the whole data collection process. Agremo organized the training to show them how to use the app, draw annotations, and how to transform SHP files from John Deere Operations Center to the SHP files supported by the Agremo app. That included creating an entire in-house workflow for the conversion of seeding maps into field boundaries on individual management zones. 

Stand Count analysis As every field had more than one variety and many were planted with different seeding densities, Stand Count was requested for each unique area of a field. With this analysis results, it was possible to locate the areas with lower-performing stands and adjust farming activities in those parts of the field that needed additional or special care. In that way, they could optimize fertilizer and water inputs.

Precision planting– Drone imagery provided our client with a complete picture of fields and their condition. Knowing what parts of the field to exclude and what percentage of the seeds are becoming productive plants is valuable information when working in the seed development program. 

Yield prediction– By using Agremo’s Plant Counting product, they have a more accurate understanding of the stand composition dynamics. In that way, they know what is producing their ultimate yield and how the number of plants in the field influences the finished size profile that they sell to the customers. 

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Reduced lower-producing seeds by 20%

Thanks to drone imagery and Agremo analytics, our long-term partner Black Gold Farms can better understand every acre of their land through this comprehensive inventory method (through a continuous improvement process Black Gold and Agremo partnered to reduce the time necessary to establish the internal field boundaries). They have gained a clearer understanding of what seed sources and what seed types perform best in their production environments. That ability to track the highly productive seeds gives our client more success in the potato production process. This information will result in our client shifting 20% of their seed crop to a more strategic size. They expect to eliminate or reduce lower-producing seeds by 20% and shift the form of seed they plant by 30%. 

Return on Investment with Automated Stand Count

With Agremo’s Plant Counting analytics, Black Gold Farms has obtained the quantitative data of the whole field. The primary value is understanding how the stand performance translates to finished tuber size, quality, and yield outcomes. A high-quality measurement of plant population based on AI technology and drones gives Black Gold Farms guidance in what direction they should go when it comes to optimizing potato production. Having complete and accurate information pays off big time.

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