A Second Look – and Adoption – of Smart Apply Saves the 2022 Growing Season for Nilo Plantation

Hurricane Michael, which ravaged South Georgia in 2018, was particularly unkind to Nilo Plantation. The 11,000-acre estate, whose bread-and-butter business is quail hunts but also has 1,200 acres in pecan trees, took a direct hit. The devastation was so bad, in fact, that up to 40 percent of the pecan orchard was wiped out.

Farm manager Blake McCranie remembers that day like it was yesterday. “Two of the hardest-ass men I’d ever met, my bosses, were crying like babies. Our pecan business was on the cusp of a great year, and in seconds 1,000s of pecan trees were flattened.”

“I think I was crying, too,” he adds.

What made the hurricane damage even worse is that it came on the heels of a tornado in 2017 that severely damaged the plantation’s pine forest and quail habitat. Talk about a double whammy.

Nilo Plantation was down, but not out. After logging crews removed the badly damaged pecan trees, the team began to replant “baby” pecan trees among the six-decades-old,  70-foot mature trees left standing.

Nilo after Hurricane Michael

Starting over was tough as the Nilo team did had to operate under the reality—at least as it relates to pecan trees—that patience is a virtue. It takes six to seven years before young trees begin to bear nuts and another three to four years before deemed to be in full production. A waiting game indeed.

Meanwhile, McCranie had to continue business as usually, which involved keeping the pecan orchard sprayed and destructive pests under control. With new trees planted among the “granddaddies,” the size differential of the trees posed significant challenges. The plantation’s traditional air blast sprayers deployed chemicals in one continuous cloud regardless of tree size. As a result, it was easy to over spray chemicals.

To avoid waste, McCranie instructed his operators to manually turn their air blast sprayers’ valves off and on between trees and during row changes. This was stressful and fatiguing for operators. Plus, there was no way of knowing if these manual efforts were saving on chemicals.

In spring 2020, McCranie received a cold call from Kirk Bailey, a technical sales representative for Smart Apply, who was making a sweep across Georgia to recruit pecan growers to its precision spray technology, the Smart Apply Intelligent Spray Control System™ McCranie listened politely to Bailey’s pitch on how the LiDAR-powered system automates the spraying process, so no manual intervention is needed and ultimately saves an orchard an average of 50 percent on chemicals.  McCranie’s reaction?

“We’d seen some tech in the past that was no good. We didn’t think Smart Apply was any different, so we wrote them off.”

Fast forward to 2021. South Georgia’s leading John Deere dealer, Flint Ag & Turf, became an authorized dealer of the Smart Apply System. The system was a perfect for Flint’s Precision Ag group, which specializes in helping growers improve yields with the latest technology. Flint also sells air blast sprayers and could easily install, maintain, and service Smart Apply Systems which are sold as a kit and retrofitted onto existing sprayers. Flint’s adoption of Smart Apply caught McCranie’s attention.

The real turning point came from local chatter. “We started hearing about what Tim Sikes over in Dawson, Georgia, was doing with Smart Apply saving on chemicals at his pecan orchard. Then Smart Apply sold another grower so we went to watch it run. With chemical prices going through the roof, we said we need a Smart Apply System. Proven chemical savings was the deciding factor.”

Tim Sikes, Smart Apply’s first pecan grower customer in Georgia

In early 2022, Nilo Plantation bought two Smart Apply Systems from Flint Ag & Turf. Smart Apply sent Gary Vandenbark, its chief engineer, to oversee installation. He was joined by Smart Apply colleague Kirk Bailey and Flint’s Precision Ag Manager Alan Martin.

Because of the height of the pecan trees, the decision was made to run two Durand Waylon air blast sprayers in tandem, with one sprayer treating one side of the row and the second treating the other. This was necessary to have enough air power to drive chemicals to the tops of the 70-foot trees. Thanks to the LiDAR technology, the Smart Apply System would automatically detect smaller trees and adjust its spray height and volume with no operator intervention. See the video of the tandem sprayers here.

“Me and the big boss were very skeptical about this rig,” McCranie says, “but Gary proved us wrong. The system pretty much worked like a charm automatically adjusting spray volumes between trees without constant manual adjustments.”

There was one bug in the system with the GPS sending erratic data on tractor speeds. The orchard’s heavy canopy was blocking the system’s GPS signals. The solution required installing ground radar on the sprayers and manually setting speeds with the Smart Apply tablet. Even with this hiccup, McCranie says the spray coverage was superior with Smart Apply.

The benefits of installing Smart Apply Systems to the plantation’s air blast sprayers were immediate. According to McCranie, they experienced 50 percent savings on chemicals early in the season. Later in the season when the trees’ foliage was more dense,  chemical savings were 40 to 45 percent.

Says McCranie, “The Smart Apply Systems saved the 2022 season for us. Without the chemical savings, we wouldn’t have been profitable.”

He’s also optimistic going into the 2023 growing season. Nilo Plantations’ young trees are thriving, sprayer operators are happier thanks to Smart Apply automating their spraying, and less reliance on chemicals helps control operating costs. Asked about the Smart Apply System’s data reporting system that creates a digital record of each spray event and documents spray volumes and other data points, McCranie says this functionality will become increasingly important to Nilo and to other pecan growers.

Nilo Plantation pecan orchard spring 2023

“Our industry is working to expand exports and that poses new challenges. The European Union’s food safety and chemical reduction mandates will require chemical documentation. Smart Apply’s  data analytics will be a tool we will use more going forward.”

McCranie has this advice for other pecan growers considering the Smart Apply Intelligent Spray Control System: “Don’t hesitate. Go ahead and bite the bullet. The system will pay for itself in chemical savings in 12 to 18 months.”

Learn more about Smart Apply here. See Smart Apply in action here.