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WSU’s On Solid Ground- Survey, Dry Beans, Robotic Harvest

Posted by | November 6, 2013

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Bringing Beans to School Cafeterias, Classrooms

Kelly Atterberry and Carol Miles want kids to know beans.

Kelly Atterberry shows off a few beakers full of beans. Photo courtesy of Atterberry.
Kelly Atterberry shows off a few beakers full of beans. Photo courtesy of Atterberry.

Dry beans, that is. This fall, Atterberry, a graduate student in the Department of Horticulture with Dr. Miles, is helping fourth and ninth graders in two Whatcom County schools harvest the small, but mighty, crop they planted before summer vacation. Atterberry established the bean gardening project as part of a science education and hands-on learning tool for students, in conjunction with her Masters degree research project. She is curious about how plant science and nutrition education influence kids’ bean choices in the lunchroom.

Dishing up the hearty pulse crop

The USDA requires schools to serve at least a half a cup of pulse crops (such as dry beans or peas) weekly. To help schools meet this requirement, Atterberry suggested several recipes that use dry beans, including fiesta lasagna made with tortillas instead of noodles, cheese beans that are baked with chunks of apple, a black bean dip for vegetables, and a hearty creamy cranberry bean salad. The schools chose one recipe–the cheese beans–to serve for her study, and Atterberry is measuring how much students eat or toss using a plate-waste analysis. Atterberry is measuring consumption prior to and after her classroom education program.

“Our main goal is to make an impact: increasing awareness of healthier eating behaviors with students,” said Atterberry. The hope is that if students know how healthful dry beans are to eat, this will improve their attitude towards eating them, and consumption will increase.

In recent years, fewer than 10 percent of children in the U.S. met the national food guide recommendations for vegetable consumption, and this, the team believes, has contributed to high rates of diabetes and heart-disease-related deaths. Dry beans — high in protein and fiber but low in fat — are not only a nutritious option for students, but an affordable one for schools on tight budgets, according to Whatcom County Food$ense Extension Coordinator LeeAnne Riddle who helped establish the project.

“If you can get kids excited about eating beans, it benefits both their personal health and the school system overall because it’s so economical,” she said.

Drew Betz, extension educator and director for WSU Whatcom County Extension, began working on bringing bean education into communities with Miles and Riddle a few years ago after hearing a keynote speaker talk about the pulse crop at a conference. “The Bean Team” decided they wanted to encourage more bean consumption and education across all income levels and age demographics. Betz said they even worked with 4-H kids on a garden project to learn how well different bean varieties would grow in their community.

“What’s great about this new project is that in addition to learning about how beans grow in the fields, we are looking at it through the entire life cycle– from plant to plate to what doesn’t get used,” Betz said. “It’s great to do it in an interdisciplinary approach that brings together the human and agricultural sciences.”

From Farm to School

Atterberry and Miles also put emphasis on the importance of working with Washington farmers to establish a local market (the schools) through the grassroots Farm to School effort. In partnership with Willowood Farms on Whidbey Island, the Rockwell heirloom bean is growing in the school gardens. The ultimate vision is to source locally grown beans for lunchrooms in the county, said Miles.

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Atterberry strolls through a field of beans.

While it’s relatively easy to carry out plant-based studies (to test fertilizers, pesticides, cultivars, etc.), Miles said when she looks at the dry bean education and consumption project she sees the complexity of policy, human behavior, and food choices.

Atterberry is optimistic that a holistic approach will help yield a better understanding of the potential of using dry beans in school cafeterias and the effectiveness of experience-based education. In mid-September students tasted the bean dishes for the first time. Atterberry will ultimately leave the attitude and consumption results to science. But there’s no denying she also hopes that when equipped with bean education and tasty choices, if kids try it, they just might like it.

This article has been adapted from its original presentation in Washington State Magazine. Read more on dry beans here. Learn more about horticultural research at Mt. Vernon Research and Extension Center at

-Rachel Webber

Human and Robot Team-up for High-tech Harvest

Many Washington tree fruit growers dream of a day when automated technology helps bring in the harvest. Manoj Karkee, assistant professor with the Center for Precision and Automated Agricultural Systems (CPAAS) at Washington State University, believes that day will soon be here.

Karkee and his team of WSU scientists recently won a $548,000 U.S. Department of Agriculture grant to develop tree fruit harvesting technology in which robots and humans work side-by-side.

Sensors measure force and pressure during hand picking of apple. Photo credit Long He.
Sensors measure force and pressure during hand picking of apple. Photo credit Long He.

“Due to the complexity of fruit identification in an orchard environment, collaboration between human and machine is very important. This is what’s unique,” Karkee said. “When the robot can’t deliver, humans will step in and vice versa.”

Growers keen on technology

The cost of seasonal labor is increasing and the availability of a semi-skilled labor force continues to become more uncertain. But will growers embrace robotic fruit harvesting?

“Growers are very, very interested in this technology and ardently await it,” Karkee said. “In three to five years we hope to have a prototype to demo in the field, and in another five years be able to point to where growers can adopt the technology.”

When apples are in clusters or obscured by leaves and branches, a robot requires complex algorithms and long computational time to identify them. Humans, on the other hand, can very quickly identify fruits in these situations. When the two work together in a mobile system in the field, the fruit is identified in real time faster than by either human or machine alone.

Karkee will develop specialized robotic methods to harvest fruit with consideration for things like the delicacy of the fruit and the dynamics of picking fruit by hand.

Materials, methods to mimic human hand

Conceptual human machine interface for collaborative fruit identification. Image credit: Manoj Karkee and Mark De Kleine.

To develop a prototype, Karkee and his team, which includes Karen Lewis, Changki Mo and Qin Zhang, will determine how best to detach fruit from the tree – pull? rotate? twist and pull?

The researchers will study growth patterns of various types of apples. They will record and analyze videos of hand motions taken during manual picking as well as analyze force and pressure data recorded by sensors placed on the hand. This knowledge will be transferred to a robotic hand for a highly efficient fruit removal system.

A complementary project directed by Karkee will identify materials that best mimic the human hand in order to create a robotic hand that won’t damage fruit. Funding for the research was awarded through the National Robotics Initiative, a joint program of the National Science Foundation, USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, National Institutes of Health, and National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Learn more about agricultural automation and precision farming at

-Sylvia Kantor