Cutting Edge Innovations Demonstrated at Penn State FREC Field Day
Posted: July 20, 2011
At 1:00 pm the 200 plus participants divided into three smaller groups and were sent on their way to the different educational stations around the FREC grounds. Each station touched on a range of different topics, and each topic was presented by a leading researcher in their respective field. Presentation topics ranged from advanced integrated pest management strategies for insects and diseases to new agricultural production technologies. “The sheer wealth of information available at the event proved most helpful and enlightening,” said one participant farmer, “some of the things these scientists come up with are unbelievably innovative.”
A number of presentations fell under the general theme of advanced integrated pest management strategies. Two such presentations were entirely devoted to the hot topic of the brown marmorated stink bug problem that has swept across the nation within the last 2 years. “We are still very much in the beginning stages of research,” said Deonna Soergel, a graduate student studying the biology and behavior of the stink bug. “At the moment, we are looking at the life cycle to determine their behavior so that eventually, we can disrupt their life cycle and keep them from destroying our orchards,” she added. Dr. Greg Krawczyk’s presentation on the management of the brown marmorated stink bug was more foreboding. “The stink bug can be found almost everywhere in the U.S.; in fact, it has been detected in at least 36 states. They are always in orchards; they are extremely mobile creatures and destroy anything and everything green.” Both Dr. Krawczyk and Deonna Soergel’s research on the stink bug contributes to scholarship focused on identifying ways to manage the stink bug, or at least curb their destruction, for now. One thing is certain about stink bugs: they are not so easy to get rid of. “When you use a good insecticide, you can eradicate all stink bugs in the orchard at that time, however we have found that even the most effective insecticides do not kill the eggs that stink bugs leave behind, nor do they stop stink bugs from coming into an orchard after it has been sprayed,” says Dr. Krawczyk. “The management of their behavior is the main problem,” said Deonna Soergel. “We have not been able to pin down the right pheromone to achieve this,” added Dr. Krawczyk, “this is because their pheromones change depending on the season. We are trying to come up with alternative solutions, other than insecticides, but what may work for one orchard will not necessarily work for another.”
Other investigations into advanced integrated pest management strategies were highly inventive and diverse, covering new programs for peach brown rot and bacterial spot management, new strategies for the management of apple and grape diseases, and borer control with entomopathogenic nematodes. The scientists behind these projects are all seeking alternatives to existing pest management strategies in order to make pest solutions more affordable and ecological. For example, Dr. John Halbrendt, Penn State Nematologist, has discovered that introducing parasitic nematodes to a borer infested tree can serve as a highly effective management strategy that can be easily commercialized. “Right now, we are experimenting with nematode concentrations to determine the optimal number of nematodes per gallon of water needed for each treatment, but generally the outlook for this alternative method of borer management is very positive,” said John Halbrendt.
Another presentation touched on alternative pollinators for tree fruit. According to the presenter, Dr. Biddinger, one out of every three bites of food we eat comes from the work of pollinators. “Since 2006, there has been a drastic rise in cases of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), a phenomenon in which worker bees from a bee colony abruptly disappear,” stated Dr. Biddinger. “As agriculture intensifies, we are seeing more and more cases of CCD, especially in honey bee colonies. By spreading our reliance on other bee species, we can take the stress off the honeybees and work to recreate bee-friendly habitats.”
A second theme of the field day presentations revolved around the development of new agricultural production technologies with the goal of increasing labor efficiency. Dr. Paul Heinemann, lead researcher for a self-positioning mechanical thinner has spent two years experimenting with different ways to thin peach blossoms in the spring with an automated string thinner. “It took a lot of steering to position the string thinner for each specific tree. For every single tree, the thinner had to be adjusted to fit the contours of the tree branches, so the goal was to automate it so that no manual steering need be required,” he continued, “We have attached the thinner to an automator that has a mounted sonar connected to a GPS system that sends sonar signals into an algorithm that adjusts the angle of the thinner.” This proved to be more efficient by far than manual steering.
Tom Kon, a Penn State graduate student, has experimented with extending the application of this technology to apple thinning. “The questions I have been pursuing with my research are: can one use a mechanical string thinner in this region on apple? If so, what is the optimal method? I have been testing variable string thinner speed rotations and I have found that as you increase spindle speed, fruit yield declines as well as dollar price.” Overall, it was concluded that it could indeed be used, but there is risk of spur leaf tissue damage.
Another technology featured at the field day was an autonomous electric platform, designed by Carnegie Mellon engineers to increase efficiency for fruit thinning, harvesting, pruning, and many other tasks involved with tree fruit care. “Trials in grower and FREC orchards show a net positive economic impact with the use of the platform, compared to ladders, with increases in efficiency ranging from 20 to 58 percent,” said Dr. Tara Baugher, Penn State Extension Educator. Brad Hamner, a research programmer for the project, explained, “We have a laser beam that senses the width of the orchard rows and positions the vehicle in the center of the row. A motor is connected to a computer via the steering column so that, essentially, the computer does the steering. The computer receives information from a web page where the laborers can control the speed and position of the vehicle from where they stand on the platform.” Dr. Baugher added that, “the platform allows us to work continuously on the trees without having to worry about moving a ladder around, thus reducing labor time.” This technology can be adapted for various other capacities as well, only limited by imagination.
In line with the technology introduced at the field day, a presentation was given regarding orchard design that proved to be a contributing factor to the successes of the previously mentioned innovations. “You cannot effectively use new technologies, like the mechanized string thinner, or the autonomous platform, without specialized orchard and tree architecture,” said Rob Crassweller, lead researcher for intensive orchards. “Intensive orchards allow for these innovations to better perform because the layouts of the orchards are uniform, minimizing the margin of error and increasing efficiency.”
One project stood out as integrating both major themes of the day into a hybrid of automation and integrated pest management. Dr. Larry Hull is working on automating pheromone traps in order to effectively manage codling and Oriental fruit moths in orchards. What Dr. Hull and his team have developed thus far are a number of prototypes that attract the moths using pheromones, and track insect populations using automation. “The traps communicate with each other via GPS, which then sends data to a computer through the internet. Then, an interface will show where the traps are located in the orchards and how many moths it has attracted and killed,” said Dr. Larry Hull. Judging from the presentation, the project is moving in a positive direction, and very soon a marketable product will be designed.
Attendees of the bi-annual Penn State Fruit Research and Extension Center Field Day came away with a whole host of new knowledge. However, the impressive displays, experiments, and technological innovations proved to be more than just an educational experience; it also illuminated the future potential of agriculture. In attending this event, producers, scientists, and community members alike showed their commitment to future agricultural sustainability and profitability.
Amelia Jarvinen is an Ag Innovations Program Assistant at Penn State Extension serving Adams County. Penn State is committed to Affirmative Action, equal opportunity, and the diversity of its workplace. Penn State Extension in Adams County is located at 670 Old Harrisburg Road, Suite 204, Gettysburg, PA 17325, phone 717-334-6271 or 1-888-427-0261, e-mail AdamsExt@psu.edu.