‘Fruitbots’ Could Save Growers Money, Create High-tech Jobs
Advancements in the mechanization of farm equipment are reducing labor costs, increasing efficiency and improving profits for area growers of specialty crops.
Specialty crops (fruits, vegetables, tree nuts, including Washington’s largest crops, apples, grapes and potatoes) make up a $45 billion per year industry characterized by the need for intensive cultivation. But the economic sustainability of these high-value crops is threatened by increasing labor costs and shortages of available labor.
Recently, in order to meet the issue of labor head on, a consortium of university, federal and private industry researchers was formed to develop a comprehensive automation strategy for specialty crops. As Dan Bernardo, dean of the WSU College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences said, “We must keep the specialty crop industry competitive, or we lose it– and all its jobs — to global competitors. Labor cost and availability is the No. 1 threat at this time.”
WSU Extension educator Gwen Hoheisel said the Autonomous Prime Mover is a piece of equipment that has the potential to improve profit and reduce labor costs for growers of specialty crops.
“The idea behind the Autonomous Prime Mover is a laser technology that has the capability to auto-steer,” said Hoheisel. Using laser guidance, the APM can “see” the trees in an orchard and steer itself down the open lanes between rows. “Auto-steering is available now in some farm equipment, but it is through the use of GPS, which is difficult to utilize in closed orchards,” she said.
The APM performs a variety of tasks that specialty crop growers would normally hire laborers to perform, including insect monitoring and elimination, weed management and detection, plant stress and disease detection, crop load scouting, caliper measurement of tree size and augmented fruit harvesting.
Bernardo praises these advancements in technology, even though they may displace some of the jobs for laborers in the agriculture industry. “If you keep the industry here, you’ll keep the jobs here,” he said. “Agriculture is the No. 1 employer in Washington State. These types of technologies can help grow our industries and actually create higher paying jobs.”
“Most people don’t even think about what it took to get that fruit to their tables,” Hoheisel said, referring to the costs associated with producing specialty crops. “By the end of this four-year effort, we hope that some of these advancements in mechanization will become fully commercialized and utilized by area growers.”
by Tony Drovetto, CAHNRS Marketing, News, and Educational Communications intern
Grant Helps Northwest Potato Farmers Go Green
WSU entomologist Bill Snyder has received a $2.05 million USDA grant to help potato farmers reduce their use of insecticides in the Pacific Northwest.
“Currently, potato farmers are between a rock and a hard place,” Snyder said. On the one hand, Snyder said, even slight insect or disease damage to potatoes can lead to an entire crop being rejected by a processor. On the other hand, large buyers of potato products have begun to require farmers to pass “Sustainability Audits” demonstrating that they are using as few pesticides as possible.
The USDA Risk Avoidance and Mitigation grant allows Snyder and his multi-disciplinary research and extension team to investigate low-spray techniques for managing insects that transmit plant pathogens, as well as other insect pests of potato.
“Potato growers in Washington and the Pacific Northwest produce the highest yields in the world,” said Andy Jensen, director of research for the Washington State Potato Commission. “The region leads in potato production for both the fresh market and for processing. Potatoes contribute $9 billion dollars a year to the U.S. economy. In recent years, our potato growers have faced mounting pressure from major buyers to accelerate their adoption of ‘green’ approaches to pest management. Fortunately, the PNW industry is very progressive and sees this as an opportunity to gain a competitive advantage.”
Snyder and his team are using a three-tiered research and education approach to deal with pest control in potato.
The first tier involves developing a multi-state sampling network to detect aphids and leafhoppers and their associated plant pathogens, so that farmers know precisely when their fields are at risk of attack. Then, sprays can be carefully timed to hit the pests when they are most vulnerable.
In the second tier, the team will develop a detailed understanding of which beneficial predatory insects are contributing to natural pest control. They will do this by searching for the DNA of pests in the stomachs of predatory insects collected from potato fields.
“It’s a little like an episode of ‘CSI,’ but here we’re using DNA to track down which good bugs have killed which bad bugs,” Snyder said.
The third tier involves developing a better understanding of how growers decide when and where to apply pesticides, and also creating the means for growers to analyze the economic effectiveness of new low-spray strategies.
“Of course, none of this will work if growers can’t turn a healthy profit,” said Snyder.