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Hand-picked specialty crops ‘ripe’ for precision agriculture techniques

Staff Writer |
Timing the harvest and transport of highly perishable, hand-picked crops is an intricate dance that partners Mother Nature with manual labor.

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However, many of the “smart farming” techniques and technologies that help growers harvest more of what they sow faster and more efficiently have focused primarily on row crops like corn and soybeans, bypassing growers of high-value fresh produce.

“The large machines used to harvest row crops such as wheat, corn and soybeans provide a natural platform for improving efficiency,” said Richard Sowers, a professor of industrial and enterprise systems engineering and of mathematics at the University of Illinois.

“However, the story is radically different in high-value, hand-picked crops like strawberries, which may be many times more valuable per acre than corn. With hand-picked crops, precision agriculture lags significantly behind.”

“A hundred acres of corn may have a value of just $800,000, while the same number of acres planted in strawberries may be worth $7.5 million,” said Devasia Manuel, a recent Illinois alumnus. “Yet, strawberry harvesters use little to no precision agriculture techniques. It’s quite astonishing.”

Manuel, currently a machine learning researcher with Google, was the lead author on a paper with Sowers which explored a mathematical model for determining the optimal time for transporting a strawberry crop from the field to cold storage.

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