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Specialty Crop Innovation: Over a Century of Progress in Tree Fruit

Posted: October 25, 2011

In 1933 and 1934, nearly 50 million people flocked to the World’s Fair in Chicago to celebrate a “Century of Progress”. Visitors eagerly toured the agricultural building that showcased innovations and ideas for the future, like new designs for corn planters, harrows, and engines. How far have we come since then?
Collaboration:  2011 research in PA with training trees from an electric lift on an autonomous vehicle. Growers and orchard employees are valued cooperators in this extension initiative.

Collaboration: 2011 research in PA with training trees from an electric lift on an autonomous vehicle. Growers and orchard employees are valued cooperators in this extension initiative.

 

Katie Ellis, Ag Innovations for Specialty Crops Extension Educator

In 1933 and 1934, nearly 50 million people flocked to the World’s Fair in Chicago to celebrate a “Century of Progress”.  Visitors eagerly toured the agricultural building that showcased innovations and ideas for the future, like new designs for corn planters, harrows, and engines.  How far have we come since then? 

Today, we commonly see 10 or 12-ton combines fully equipped with air conditioning, heating, and the latest stereo systems.  Farmers in the Midwest are texting Twitter updates on their phones while their tractors drive themselves using GPS technology.  Annual crops planted on large expanses of flat land lend themselves well to new innovations in agriculture.  But what about perennial systems?  Fruit trees don’t start bearing a crop until years after planting.  Training, pruning and harvesting are also labor-intensive, since trees offer a three-dimensional, complex host of challenges for fruit production.  Consumers also demand large, blemish-free, beautifully colored fruit.  We like to joke that progress in the tree fruit industry has come a long way—we’re still picking apples and peaches with a bag and a ladder, the same way it was done a hundred years ago.  When do we get to celebrate a century of progress in the fruit industry? 

Well, it’s just around the corner.  Advances in specialty crop innovations have been gaining strength for years, whether they are factory-made machinery off a production line or improvements welded from odds and ends in a grower’s workshop.  In fact, some of the most promising innovations have involved a fusion of grower experience and engineering development.  That’s why we value the ideas, expertise and feedback from all of those that collaborate with Penn State Extension.   

Advisory panels have been a boon to the success of Comprehensive Automation for Specialty Crops (CASC), a project funded through a USDA Specialty Crops Initiative Grant and other industry sources.  Input from the advisory panel helped the CASC group prioritize project initiatives and the feasibility of equipment used for crop load management, disease detection, and insect pest monitoring.  Through the cooperation of private growers, university specialists, and other members of the fruit industry, we’ve been able to develop a collection of innovative technologies that otherwise might not have been possible over three short years.   

Some Highlights:                                                                                                                   Automation

An automated, driverless vehicle (called an Autonomous Prime Mover, or “APM”) was developed to assist in a variety of orchard tasks, such as weed spraying, mechanical thinning, and pheromone dispenser distribution.  The APM is now able to drive itself distances of over 10 km without interruption.  APM’s were also modified with platforms and tested for efficiency in shoot pinching and fruit thinning. 

Positioning software was introduced so orchard equipment doesn’t have to depend on GPS.  On average, positioning was accurate to within 24 cm.

The team tested a combined platform-harvest assist prototype that used vacuum transport and automatic bin fillers with special cushions to reduce fruit bruising. 

Crop Intelligence

Specialized cameras and sensors were tested to detect plant stress from drought and disease; this “MRI for trees” was good at distinguishing leaf color between drought-stressed and healthy trees.

Detection software also correctly identified insect infestations in 91% of photographs with insect entry holes in apples.

Insect traps able to lure, identify and wirelessly relay counts of moth pests underwent several years of testing for accuracy. 

The autonomous prime movers will be helpful when incorporating other innovations, such as the mechanical string thinning equipment developed by another USDA-SCRI project, Innovative Technologies for the Thinning of Fruit.  Not only have researchers incorporated novel thinning techniques using equipment from Europe, but improvements in the sensory and positioning capabilities of these machines offer a new outlook on thinning efficiency. 

Innovation, of course, can come at a cost.  Much of the sensor technology and computer systems required for these tasks are field-tested and ready to go, but too new to be dirt-cheap.  In time, the cost will come down, but in the meantime we’ve been conducting cost analyses to help with any sticker shock.  In many cases the technology is more cost effective than manual labor, so early adopters have an advantage in efficiency.  My colleagues and I also keep an open ear to the thoughts and concerns of growers with different operation sizes, crop diversity, and target consumers.  These conversations and surveys help us address concerns through field days, web materials, and other media. 

Changing times also present new challenges.  Farmers work to feed the nation and the world, all with increasing difficulty due to labor regulation, energy availability, and increased costs.  Consumer pressure challenges us to rethink our approaches to fruit production, especially for energy usage.  Many area growers have implemented unique solutions to help achieve sustainability goals.  At Penn State Extension, we’re trying to help the industry by providing energy assessments and fuel/electricity information so the tree fruit industry will understand efficiency gains through changes like solar panel installation and biofuel generation. 

To me, “progress” in agricultural extension work means keeping up with the latest innovations, and helping growers choose the solutions that will best serve their operations.  We try to equip them with information about all their available options for energy efficiency, sustainability, and pest and disease control.  It is our goal to help them increase their production and save on inputs, all while decreasing energy usage and improving the natural ecology and environment on their farms.  But the growers themselves deserve the most credit for moving the fruit industry forward.  They offer practical feedback, let us test new ideas on their farms, and come up with their own solutions.  They look to the future, just as so many farmers have done. 

In 1933, agricultural communities were looking forward, too.  They found hope in the promise of future innovations, even in the midst of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl.  Interestingly, the World’s Fair featured an invention relatively commonplace today: a driverless, remote-controlled tractor traveling around an enclosed field.  A dream resulted in reality.  What will we imagine for the future of agriculture in 2033?  I can’t wait to find out.