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Bringing Technology to Specialty Crops

Posted by Greg Astill, Markets and Trade Economics Division, Economic Research Service and Suzanne Thornsbury, Senior Advisor for Agricultural Economics and Rural Communities, Office of the Chief Scientist in Research and Science
Aug 06, 2020

Advances in technology, automation, and remote sensing is a cross-cutting, macro movement in science impacting agriculture outlined in the USDA Science Blueprint (PDF, 2.6 MB). The Science Blueprint guides USDA’s science priorities for the next 5 years, building from past success. Relative to other crops, many specialty crops are more dependent on agricultural labor for production, harvesting, and processing. This is part of a blog series that highlights research investments to advance automation and mechanization for specialty crops.

Each day we use technologies to solve problems and accomplish tasks that once would have taken much longer. Whether facial recognition software, a smart thermostat, or a robotic vacuum, technology has changed the way we live and work. Farmers are also using technology to make production of specialty crops, such as fruits, vegetables, and tree nuts, more efficient. These crops make up one third of U.S. crop production sales and one sixth of U.S. agricultural sales.

Between 2008 and 2018, USDA funded $287.7 million towards diverse research projects to develop and enhance the use of automation or mechanization in specialty crop production and processing. Most of these projects focused on precision agriculture, which includes a set of complex or “smart” technologies that tailor the needs of the plants to its specific environment or growing conditions, such as precise water, fertilizer, or pest or weed control. For example, a smart sprayer identifies individual trees in an orchard, their size, shape, and leaf density to adjust spray and reduce herbicide use. A smart irrigation system provides water only to the plants that need it, when they need it, continually adapting to crop conditions as the weather changes.

Some USDA projects focus on development of specific components that will eventually be combined into more complex technologies. Sensors generate high-quality data on crops, weather, and soil. Remote sensing data, gathered by satellites, includes information like crop growth, soil moisture, or weather conditions while drones gather more localized data on weed, pest, or disease prevalence. Machine learning algorithms convert the data into useful forms of information to help manage the farm.

Other projects include development of job aids or automated machinery to help farm workers work more efficiently, such as an adjustable trellis system to make harvesting blackberries easier or mechanical thinners and pruners for vineyards and orchards. And some automation or mechanization technology helps with harvesting and processing, such as a flash freezing system or a mobile, in-field computerized apple sorter.

USDA funded $287.7 million toward a diversity of research projects to develop or enhance the use of automation or mechanization in specialty crops between 2008 and 2018

USDA funding for research into mechanization or automation for specialty crops, 2008-2018 chart
Source: USDA, Economic Research Service, based on data provided by USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, Agricultural Research Service, and National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

For more information, see the recent ERS report Developing Automation and Mechanization for Specialty Crops: A Review of U.S. Department of Agriculture Programs.

This research supports the “value-added innovation” theme outlined in the USDA Science Blueprint and moves us closer to meeting the goals outlined in USDA’s Agriculture Innovation Agenda.

Category/Topic: Research and Science

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