When addressing the needs of the tree fruit industry, the Tree Fruit Technology Roadmap (www.treefruitresearch.com/technology-roadmap), an initiative launched in 2001, takes the meaning of “precise” in precision agriculture to an entirely new level. Members of the steering committee are even contemplating the feasibility of altering fruit during the growing season to match current consumer preferences.
“Quality over quantity is our focus, with optimized production efficiencies, because that is our differentiation in an over-saturated market,” says steering group member Jim McFerson, manager of the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission and “Tree Fruit” columnist for American/Western Fruit Grower.
A Good Education
To enhance U.S. tree fruit production through technological innovation, the steering group members have had to shift their focus from learning about technologies that have been used in other sectors of the industry, to spreading the word about these technologies to growers.
For example, researchers have been investigating the feasibility of mechanically harvesting sweet cherries for the fresh market. “The technology is there, and it improves labor efficiency tenfold. In regard to mechanical harvesters, for example, right now we are limited only by tree architecture; it needs to allow access to mechanical harvesters. So our focus is more on education now, and convincing growers to take giant leaps forward in their orchard structures,” says Matt Whiting, a tree fruit physiologist who partnered with USDA-ARS agricultural engineer Donald Peterson to test his mechanical harvester on sweet cherries.
According to steering group member Fran Pierce, director of the Washington State University Center for Precision Agricultural Systems, several criteria must be taken into account when promoting technology for use in the tree fruit industry. “It is important to make sure the technology is convenient to use, profitable, a source of relief to some of the burdens growers face, and a source of new knowledge that is pertinent to the industry. Technology that offers all of these benefits will help the industry to do very well,” he says.
Sensors Are Critical
Equally important to the initiative is the use of sensors to measure tree health and fruit quality. Growers who successfully adjust fruit production to meet consumer preferences will gain the market advantage. Therefore, the availability of technologies that foster automation, sense tree health and fruit quality, and are both robust and economical is a defining factor in achieving labor savings and fruit quality enhancement.
Despite the importance of canopy and crop load management to tree fruit growers, there are currently a limited number of sensors available to measure tree canopy, light penetration and distribution, or fruit quality. The Technology Roadmap steering committee is trying to incorporate more sensors into their research program. So far, they have used remote sensing for canopy density and virus detection, in addition to product differentiation and traceability.
“Sensors are absolutely critical. We can collect information very quickly, but we need to work on the interpretation in order to turn that information into a decision. We also need to create more sensors,” Pierce says. Developing advanced sensors is a weighty task that requires thorough and vigorous research, as well as a great deal of time and energy.
Training systems designed for tree fruit operations are another crucial part of the Technology Roadmap. To ensure that the systems are part of a cohesive operating plan, one mission of the initiative is the compilation of scientific technologies to create integrated management practices. The steering group is dedicating so much thought to the implementation of these practices for a distinct reason. “Training systems are fundamental for the adoption of these future technologies,” Whiting says.
To find the most compatible systems, the steering group is looking at systems designed to be compact fruiting walls. Old systems are complicated and less efficient when it comes to inputs (labor in particular). One new training system researchers are considering is Upright Fruiting Offshoots (UFO), which has the compact design that has been garnering industry interest recently.