Tree Fruit: Precision Agriculture Coming Into Focus

The recent annual meeting of the Washington State Horticultural Association (WSHA) had sustainability as its theme and highlighted the transition we are undergoing as a new generation assumes leadership. That generation includes some amazing young people, more women, and more Hispanics. Our producers are growing in diversity along with the products we offer.

Attitudes at the meeting were upbeat and positive, even as the Washington apple crop grew by millions of boxes. Somehow, the precision of our crop estimation, never very good, seemed to lack any precision whatsoever.

Precision agriculture is a powerful concept, one particularly suited to the readership of American/Western Fruit Grower. Fruit and nut producers are looking harder than ever for any competitive edge. This doesn’t mean simply cutting costs; rather it requires a focus on consistently providing a product the consumer prefers and doing so by optimizing per unit costs of production.

Thus, it would seem that implementing more accurate and exact management agricultural practices (precision agriculture) makes perfect sense for all specialty crops. After all, these industries are accustomed to capital- and management-intensive farming: High-density plantings; complex systems to deliver water, nutrient, and plant bioregulator inputs; specialized equipment; complicated and expensive harvest handling and processing procedures; well-trained managers, consultants, and work force — all business as usual.

Investing In The Future

Most producers have long been using the accurate and exact approach of integrated pest management. Most are now computer literate and ready to utilize Internet-based communication via smartphone, laptop, or desktop. Mechanization of pruning, spraying, and harvest is common in many fruit and nut operations, although it is often inaccurate and inexact, and messy to boot.

Escalating labor and input costs, along with regulatory demands, render precision agriculture the obvious course. Why, then, has it remained only a concept for specialty crops?

I have no easy answer. I have written in previous columns about efforts to develop engineering solutions for specialty crop challenges. These partnered efforts involve commodity associations, private sector technology providers, and leadership from USDA administrators like Tom Bewick, Dan Schmoldt, Sally Schneider, and Jeff Steiner. Unfortunately, what I have written has been like specialty crop implementation of precision agriculture — mostly conceptual. Meetings, reports, trips to DC, more meetings, etc. Dormancy-inducing.

However, in the past couple months, things are starting to liven up. Teams associated with projects funded by the Specialty Crop Research Initiative (SCRI) have been organizing. The great goals of the SCRI are being addressed: develop a competitive process to fund research and Extension teams; engage stakeholders; use an integrated approach to addressing critical issues; and emphasize outreach and economic impact. Additionally, the magnitude of funds allocated matches the importance of the proposed activities, with around $28 million in USDA funds. Since each project was also required to demonstrate 100% matching funds, much of that from commodity organizations and private sector technology providers, the total investment is really around $55 million.
For more information on all of the 27 funded projects and to access abstracts for each, go to http://www.csrees.usda.gov/newsroom/news/2008news/10081_scri.html.

The SCRI represents the kind of innovation specialty crop industries require. Why, if we are successful, crop estimates for 2009 might be a little more precise …

Finally, I cannot write this column without acknowledging the passing of Tom Mathison, an industry leader who personified innovation throughout his life. Mathison was a critical figure in raising the profile of research in the Washington tree fruit industry and beyond. He leaves behind a tremendous legacy.

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