In partnership with the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, Penn State Extension has set up kiosks at produce auctions across the state to provide growers with timely information on disease and pest identification and management, invasive species alerts, and food safety.
Beth Gugino, associate professor of vegetable pathology in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences, and her colleagues on the vegetable, small fruit and mushroom extension team have led the development and execution of this program.
In Pennsylvania, there are 16 wholesale produce auction locations. These auctions are places for growers to bring their in-season produce, flowers, fall ornamentals and so forth to be auctioned off in bulk amounts to farm market stores, local grocery chains and independent retailers.
"In the past, buyers would have to go from farm to farm to purchase large amounts of produce, primarily from Amish and Mennonite growers," Gugino said. "With the auctions, everything is in one place. They are an important market for growers who are not wholesaling directly to large retailers."
The auctions begin in the spring with bedding plants, and some continue to sell products such as tomatoes, pumpkins and even Christmas trees into the winter months. The number of days open per week varies based on the growing season, ranging from two to four days weekly.
The majority of the growers are Amish and Mennonite; Gugino and her team have tried to structure their eight kiosks to serve these groups. "This community does not access technology the same way that other growers would. Because the produce auctions are such hubs of activity during the growing season, we have the opportunity to disseminate information to a large number of growers in our target audience."
This project has been active for the last three years, although Gugino's colleagues had the idea for the kiosks some time before that. Funding for the project came from the Plant Health Resource Center, which is part of the Ag Resource Centers initiative between Penn State and the state Department of Agriculture.
The Agriculture Department works with Gugino and her team to develop handouts and other information for the kiosks. "It's a good partnership between the college and the Pennsylvania Department of Ag. These kiosks go a long way to facilitating better communication with the growers they serve," Gugino said.
The kiosks have glass-enclosed panels that allow information to be easily displayed and updated. There are also places for informational pamphlets for growers to take home.
With the help of extension educators and other volunteers, the information at the kiosks is updated at least biweekly, if not weekly. Gugino and her colleagues designed sections of the kiosks to focus exclusively on pest and disease forecasting with easily updateable maps. "We make the posters as evergreen as possible so that we can reuse them or update them as necessary," she explained.
Growers use this information to make informed in-season management decisions ranging from when to make a cost-effective fungicide application to identifying a new pest. The kiosks show the growers the movements of the diseases and pests, which in turn helps them make decisions about crop management.
The kiosk topics are tailored to fit the region's needs. Past topics have included information on invasive pests like spotted lanternfly, general food safety and avian flu. "We focus on topics that are relevant for growers given the time of the season and issues they are likely to see in their crops," Gugino said.
She noted that as the project grows, she is looking forward to increasing student involvement in the kiosks. "I have an undergraduate student who will be working with me this summer to design a way to evaluate the effectiveness of these kiosks as an information-dissemination tool," she said.
"We want to see how the information we're delivering is being used by growers to make crop management decisions. At this stage, we're working to develop a method of surveying our stakeholders in a way that will give us the most accurate feedback."
Future plans for the program include expanding the number of kiosks at auctions statewide. Gugino also hopes to work more closely with the produce auction managers to make the flow of information even more effective.
"The Amish and Mennonite communities play a major role in the vegetable-production industry across Pennsylvania," she said. "Making sure that they have access to the same information as those who utilize online resources is important to ensure that they can continue to produce crops, not only to support their families, but also to continue to support Pennsylvania's agriculture industry."