Time is paramount when testing potato crops before spraying and fertilizer applications, which is what Picketa’s new product is all about.
For their final engineering project, four University of New Brunswick students decided to help potato growers save time by shortening lab test time.
The four engineering students — Maxime Dumont, Dominic Levesque, Zachary Andersen, and Xavier Herbert-Couturier — all come from different backgrounds. Dumont had grown up on a cattle farm, Levesque was a fifth-generation potato farmer, Andersen had previously been a wildland firefighter and Herbert-Couturier had worked as a software developer.
As the four pooled their ideas in the fall of 2021 for their final project and they quickly realized they wanted to create a remote monitoring product to help farmers. Through Levesque’s experience growing up on a potato farm and a summer job working at NutriAg, he knew there was demand in the potato industry for a product that could combine remote monitoring with plant analysis.
Over the course of their final school year, they created their company Picketa Systems and product which does real time plant tissue analysis. Traditionally petiole sampling is an expensive and time-consuming process. It requires petioles to be manually collected from fields and sent to a laboratory for analysis — which in the case of New Brunswick growers the closest lab is in Ontario. Results are then received in about a week.
“Growers liked petiole tests at first, they liked the data, but it took so long to get the data back that it didn’t really fit their workflow well,” Dumont explains in a Zoom interview. “We did the research. And the product we made combines an optical sensor and machine learning to estimate the nutrient concentration in potato plants.”
Picketa’s product requires for a petiole sample to be taken in field. It’s then brought back to an office where the plant is scanned into Picketa’s computer program, which instantaneously reveals potato nutrient levels. Picketa is working on developing another tool which will allow for infield scanning and analysis, with field tests to start in 2023.
“Agronomists take in that information and look at critical levels at that specific time in the season, and either recommend a fertilizer amendment, like a foliar fertilizer, or maybe just suggest leaving it alone and letting it do its thing,” Dumont says.
Picketa built their product during the 2021 growing season. The 2022 growing season is their soft launch in New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, with Picketa results being compared to traditional petiole tests. Further expansion into other regions is planned for coming years.
Traditional petiole samples cost growers $40 per sample while Picketa’s system costs around $25 per sample. Growers are able to access Picketa’s tests through potato companies and agronomists, and while the cost can vary they’re cheaper overall with faster turnaround time allowing for more tests to be done during the growing season.
One of the agronomists Picketa is working with is Dave Bell. Bell was introduced to Picketa in their early days and has watched them develop their product. For the 2022 growing season he has hired Picketa to collect petioles samples and report the results on a weekly basis to his customers. Due to the shorter turnaround time, Bell is increasing his total number of samples by five times the amount.
“It’s also going to be able to give us some good feedback on whether the intervention that we’ve made has actually made a difference. We will follow our results, we see that we’re trending downward on a nutrient level, we come in and add a nutrient, then hopefully we’re going to be able to see the effects of that treatment,” Bell says in a phone interview.
Header Photo — Dominic Levesque taking samples in Picketa customers’ potato fields to take back and analyze. Photo: Picketa Systems