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The Specialty Crop Block Grant Program and Automation Explored

Posted by Jillian Kaplan, USDA Agricultural Marketing Service, Deanna Gierszewski, North Dakota Department of Agriculture and Josh Johnson, Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services in Research and Science
Aug 14, 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.

U.S. specialty crop producers face a variety of challenges that require a diverse set of solutions. From labor shortages and rising production costs that threatened the health of Florida’s strawberry industry to water supply challenges that stymied North Dakota’s vegetable yields, the Specialty Crop Block Grant Program (SCBGP) has helped producers bring to life innovative ideas in automation.

USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service provides annual SCBGP funding to State Departments of Agriculture for projects that support specialty crop growers, producers and consumers. The projects can range from outreach and education, training, marketing or research to enhance the specialty crop industry. Each State determines priorities that will be most impactful to the issues they are facing.

A tool to pick strawberries
The tool is designed to mimic human hands and fingers as it picks strawberries. Photo Credit: Shinsuke Agehara

In the case of addressing labor shortfalls in strawberry harvesting, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services awarded funding to the University of Central Florida to develop a project that is currently engineering a mechanical arm. This gripper will mimic human hands and fingers as it picks strawberries—without damaging the fruit. The technology aims to be universal for different strawberry varieties. The project will also evaluate the economic impact of the gripper creation.

To date, the project team finalized their design and manufactured two prototypes. Both prototypes have gone through laboratory and field tests, and one has been integrated with a robotic arm-like platform for harvesting. The team will measure project success by the number of strawberry varieties to which the picking mechanism can be applied and the number of harvesting platforms that decide to adopt the technology.

In North Dakota, the State Department of Agriculture distributed SCBGP funds to North Dakota State University to tackle water management issues. The project’s goal is to improve fruit and vegetable yields by creating a drip irrigation system that can be automatically controlled by soil moisture sensors. The project involves conducting experiments to see how different mulch types and amounts impact weed control with the system. They will then educate local growers on the new drip irrigation technology.

A drip irrigation system
Drip irrigation system projected to conserve water, improve soil temperature, and extend growing seasons for North Dakota fruit and vegetable production. Photo Credit: Xinhua Jia

To date, the team has designed, built and implemented the drip irrigation system and conducted comparisons on tomato and watermelon yield and quality. With its projected ability to conserve water, improve soil temperature and extend growing seasons, the team sees this system as the future of North Dakota specialty crops.

Automated production methods have been a common thread in multiple SCBGP projects. According to the recent ERS Report, Developing Automation and Mechanization for Specialty Crops: A Review of U.S. Department of Agriculture Programs, $12.5 million in funding on automation and mechanization projects has been distributed in the SCBGP between FY 2008-2018. As states and growers identify specific needs in the specialty crop industry, SCBGP welcomes innovative ideas to help the industries evolve and adapt.

For more information on the SCBGP and previously awarded projects, please visit the SCBGP program website. To learn more about USDA investments in innovation technologies, visit the USDA Science Blueprint (PDF, 2.6 MB) and Agricultural Innovation Agenda (PDF, 196 KB). Principal investigators for the projects highlighted in this blog: Mechanical Strawberry Harvester Project (Yunjun Xu, University of Central Florida (, Shinsuke Agehara, Gulf Coast Research and Education Center, University of Florida (, Zhengfei Guan, Gulf Coast Research and Education Center, University of Florida ( Drip Irrigation System Project (Dr. Xinhua Jia, Department of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering, North Dakota State University (, Dr. Chiwon Lee, Department of Plan Sciences, North Dakota State University (,Dr. Thomas Scherer, Department of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering, North Dakota State University (

Category/Topic: Research and Science