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Ag-Tech Research Gives the Produce Industry More Information Sooner

Oct 02, 2017

By: Allison Nepveux, FreshTEC Expo Manager

In 2017, the United Fresh Produce Association debuted the technology of 12 research institutions from across the U.S. through the University Showcase held in conjunction with the FreshTEC Conference at the FreshTEC Expo in Chicago. These universities, which included the University of Minnesota, displayed their latest in robotics, automation, food safety and other applicable technologies for the fresh produce industry.                    

We will be bringing it back in 2018 and are encouraging universities to bring any solutions for improving the produce industry. We circled back with the University of Minnesota to learn about the technology their researchers showcased in June and to give an update on where they are today.

Improved Planning
More information can help businesses make better decisions, and researchers at the University of Minnesota are working to give those within the produce industry detailed information on product counts earlier in the process. Through the use of camera technology and mapping software, researchers have created a system that can provide pre-harvest yield information for tree fruit.

By estimating the crop load earlier in the season, growers can more accurately thin their fruit, provide advanced information on labor and transportation needs related to the harvest, and supply information to wholesalers and retailers who plan to purchase the produce.

To learn more about this Farm Vision technology, we met with Volkan Isler, a professor within the computer science and engineering department at the University of Minnesota, and Patrick Plonski, a PhD student at the university who is leading the effort to make the technology available commercially. They predict that it will benefit not only growers but also everyone within the supply chain.  

“When every apple orchard has these estimates coming in I think it will change how business is done because of how much the uncertainty will be reduced,” Plonski said.

The Technology
The system uses cameras that can be carried by foot or mounted on existing farm equipment, such as tractors or drones. As the growers capture the videos, computer vision algorithms extract information about their yield. Plonski said it can accurately count an apple, for example, if there is even a partial view.

Today the system has been used with apples, and it can provide current count and size information. This information can help growers’ sales teams identify the different markets and retailers that will purchase the apples. “Down the line, the technology can enable adoption of precision agriculture methods in specialty farms by providing tree-level information about yield accumulated over time,” Isler explained.

Isler said they are actively working on testing the system on other tree fruit and berries, and researchers plan to add additional information, such as color, which could indicate how ripe the fruit is.

That type of information could be particularly useful for berries. “The challenge with berries is that it isn’t enough to say how many you have. You also have to say how many berries are going to be ripe today or in two days or in four days,” Plonski said, adding that researchers are working on providing a granulated timing estimate as part of the technology.

Current Use
Because Farm Vision is currently in the research and development stage, its current users are primarily collaborators in horticulture departments, but there are some early adopter orchard managers. “We are about to start orchard scale testing this coming season,” Isler said, adding that growers interested in testing the technology should contact him.  

Plonski estimates that the technology will be commercially available to a small number of users next year. “It will be a question of how quickly we can scale up,” he said.

The Effect on the Industry
Pre-harvest yield mapping has implications for the entire industry. “Shippers can provide buyers in advance detailed information about the incoming produce and eliminate losses due to low supplies or rejected fruit. It also has implications for the insurance industry,” Isler said.

This type of technology is especially useful given that demand for high-quality fruit is increasing worldwide, and could help growers meet demand. “Our technology can help increase farm efficiency and profitability while providing affordable and high quality produce to consumers,” Isler explained.

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