Insights from BCC Research

Hand-Picked Specialty Crops ‘Ripe’ For 'Smart Farming' Techniques

Posted by Clayton Luz on Mar 7, 2017 11:45:00 AM

Many of the “smart farming” techniques and technologies that help growers harvest more of what they sow faster and more efficiently have focused primarily on row crops like corn, soybeans, and wheat, bypassing growers of high-value fresh produce like strawberries.

 
"The large machines used to harvest row crops such as wheat, corn and soybeans provide a natural platform for improving efficiency," says Richard Sowers, a professor of industrial and enterprise systems engineering at the University of Illinois. "However, the story is radically different in high-value, hand-picked crops like strawberries, which may be many times more valuable per acre than corn. With hand-picked crops, precision agriculture lags significantly behind.”
 
Devasia Manuel finds Sower's observation "astonishing."
 
"A hundred acres of corn may have a value of just $800,000, while the same number of acres planted in strawberries may be worth $7.5 million,” says Manuel. "Yet, strawberry harvesters use little to no precision agriculture techniques. It's quite astonishing."
 
Manuel, a machine-learning researcher with Google, co-authored a paper with Sowers which explored a mathematical model for determining the optimal time for transporting a strawberry crop from the field to cold storage.
 
Their research suggests that precision agriculture techniques could financially benefit producers of hand-picked specialty crops. According to BCC Research, precision farming (also known as precision agriculture or satellite farming) technologies as a farming management concept that utilizes software and hardware for observing, measuring and responding to intra-field variability in crops, resulting in better crop management and more effective output.
 
HARVEST QUALITY VS. QUANTITY
 
Manuel and Sowers developed and analyzed a model for scheduling transport for perishable products. In the field, fluctuations in harvest rate lead to uncertainty as to the optimal time to request transport to a cooling facility. While the harvested fruit sits in the field waiting to be transported, its decaying and losing quality, according to Sowers.
 
The question became one of balancing harvest quality vs quantity.
 
A few years ago, Sowers and Manuel, then a graduate student at Illinois, observed workers harvesting strawberries on Crisalida Farms in Oxnard, California. Their algorithm explored the spoilage the grower might incur if they sent partially loaded trucks to the cooling stations, rather than waiting until their trucks were loaded to capacity to transport the fruit to cold storage.
Hand-picked fruits such as strawberries begin to decay immediately upon harvest, perhaps lowering the crop's market value by as much as 10% for every hour the harvested produce sits in the sun waiting to be transported to refrigerated storage, Sowers says.
 
“Growers would like to transport their crops to cooling stations according to an optimal policy, but that policy has to reflect a trade-off between the loss in quality and the rate of harvest,” he explains.
 
MATHEMATICAL MODEL OPTIMIZES HARVEST/TRANSPORT TIME FOR SPECIALITY CROPS
 
Unlike machine-harvested crops, harvesting of hand-picked crops varies from worker to worker and by time of day as workers become hot and fatigued, the researchers noted in the study.
 
“If your workers pick 90% of a load in just 15 minutes and then slow down because of the heat, it would make sense to get the load to cold storage even though the truck is only partially full,” Sowers says. “That’s a very simplified picture, but that’s what we were trying to get at. We thought through how to model these trade-offs and did some optimization and simulations, and we found that some significant savings might be possible.”
 
Sowers declined to cite dollar values because their findings were theoretical and the model would need to be calibrated to growers’ actual harvest and spoilage data.
 
However, the findings were encouraging, he says. The potential financial rewards should motivate researchers and crop producers to explore opportunities to apply precision agriculture techniques to the management of hand-picked and specialty crops.
 
Sowers and Manuel’s methodology is described in a paper published in the journal Natural Resource Modeling.

Topics: Instrumentation and Sensors