UF Researchers Adapt Space-Age Technology To Citrus Farming

March 03, 1998

GAINESVILLE --- Facing stiff competition from countries with cheap labor and few regulations, Florida citrus growers are battling for market share.

They may soon have a new weapon: satellite and computer technology being adapted for citrus groves by University of Florida engineers.

Precision agriculture, or "smart farming," uses high-tech gadgetry to enable farmers to micro-manage fields, reducing costs and boosting production. Most often used in the Midwest, where methods and gear are tailored for grain crops, the technique is being brought to Florida by agricultural engineering Professor Jodie Whitney and mechanical engineering Professor John Schueller.

"The citrus people right now are under severe economic pressure due to competition from Brazil," Schueller said. "We feel the way we can help Florida be more competitive is to make it more efficient."

Citrus farmers say they see promise in the researchers' efforts.

"I have to believe that it's going to increase our profitability," said Jeff Krieger, a grove operations engineer with Turner Foods Corp., a large South Florida citrus producer that owns some 19,000 acres of groves.

In the Midwest, combines equipped with the technology tap into a satellite network called the Global Positioning System during harvest, noting their location at many points on a field. A computer simultaneously records yield. Geographic Information System software blends the data on a map, providing a bird's eye view of how much grain each small portion of the field produces.

"You can see that, `Hey, this corner of the field has yielded less than this other corner,' and that's very important to the farmer," Schueller said.

Farmers may decide it's not cost-effective to continue farming the section. But like gardeners tending individual plants, they may also customize how they manage it.

If the soil is wet, they install drainage. If it lacks nutrients or is infested with insects or weeds, they vary applications of fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides. Estimates vary, but around 25 million acres of grain -- 8 percent of grain and soybean acreage -- were harvested by 17,000 combines equipped with the technology last year, he said.

Because citrus is not as big a commodity as grain, the technology never was adapted for citrus groves -- until Schueller and Whitney launched their research.

Stationed in Lake Alfred at the Citrus Research and Education Center, part of UF's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, Whitney has outfitted a truck used to pick up orange bins with the satellite positioning system and load cells, which measure each bin's weight. The device notes the bin's location and the weight of oranges it contains.

Known as "goats," the trucks are open air vehicles, and challenges have included making the gadgetry tough enough to withstand harsh harvesting conditions. "It's heat and dust and rain, it's hydraulic oil, it's a very hostile environment," Whitney said.

A side benefit of the experimental system is automation of record keeping. Oranges are harvested by pickers paid based on their productivity. The driver keeps track of pickers' records on paper, but Whitney is trying to blend that into the technology.

"At the end of the day, we can pull this up and it will have the yield records on the bill, the pickers who picked it, where the containers came from...' he said.

Schueller estimated citrus mapping could be common within three years. The next step will be to tailor fertilizer delivery equipment and other equipment to groves, he said.

Krieger noted the technology also is environmentally friendly. "We'll be applying the chemicals where they are needed at rates that are not excessive," he said.

Funded with $15,000 from the Florida Department of Agriculture and UF, the researchers plan this spring to apply for a $35,000 from an industry group and seek $30,000 in matching funds from manufacturers and other sources. The Florida Citrus Research Advisory Council rejected their application last year, but Schueller is hopeful.

"We're confident now that people are starting to see how this is applied to other crops and that they'll see this will work in citrus," he said.
-end-


University of Florida

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