Three research and extension projects designed to improve the competitiveness of the tree fruit industry have together been awarded more than $9 million in grants by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

A team led by Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, received $6 million to work on comprehensive automation for tree fruits.

Pennsylvania State University is heading a $1 million project exploring innovative technologies for fruit thinning.

And, Washington State University is heading a $2.2 million effort to enhance biological control to stabilize integrated pest management in western orchards.

Those projects were among 17 projects that were awarded a total of $27 million through the Specialty Crop Research Initiative, which was established in the 2008 Farm Bill. The USDA also awarded planning grants for future projects.

"We finally now have an opportunity for specialty crops to compete for funding that’s of sufficient magnitude to make a real difference," commented Dr. Jim McFerson, manager of the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission.

He said the USDA received more than 230 applications for funding and gave preference to projects submitted by multidisciplinary, multiregional, and multi-institutional teams. Matching funding from other sources, including industry, is required.

Extension efforts are a significant part of the tree fruit projects so that industry can benefit quickly from the research, rather than waiting until the research is completed, McFerson said. The projects involve economists, sociologists, and commercial partners, to ensure that the results have measurable impacts on the industry. "Researchers now have an opportunity to participate in a new kind of research that will have a direct impact on stakeholders," he said. "We’re taking a different approach. It requires more people, more money, and it’s more complicated."

This approach moves beyond looking at problems as uniquely disease problems, or bug problems, or horticultural problems, he said. Collaborators are tackling problems from the point of view of the producer or processor rather than the scientific discipline. Research will be done in commercial orchards, and each of the projects has an advisory panel of industry people.

Ultimately, the projects should help producers grow fruit more efficiently and deliver the best possible product to the consumer in order to generate repeat sales, McFerson said. "It’s all about competitiveness. It’s to maintain a competitive U.S. specialty crop industry in the global marketplace."

Comprehensive Automation for Specialty Crops ($6 million)

Project leader Dr. Sanjiv Singh at the Robotics Institute of Carnegie Mellon said the goal is to develop an autonomous vehicle that could be reconfigured to perform a number of orchard tasks and reduce labor needs. For example, a small version might carry sensors to scout for pests and diseases, or cameras to monitor the crop load or plant stress, or carry a device to measure the caliper of nursery trees. A larger version might be used for mowing or spraying, or serve as a platform to carry pickers through the orchard. Singh said it would be difficult to develop a fully automated harvester, but collaborators on the project will explore the idea of a fruit transportation system—perhaps a kind of suction tube—that could eliminate the need for workers to carry heavy bags of fruit.

The four-year project involves scientists from five universities, five private technology companies, and the USDA. Two of the project’s 26 key personnel are agricultural economists. The project also has a significant extension component.

Singh is confident the technology can be developed, but said it must make economic sense to the growers, and the economic feasibility can change over time because of economic or political reasons.

If orchards could be standardized, the new technology would be more widely adopted, and that, in turn, would make it cheaper because of economies of scale and a larger potential market, Singh said.

For information on the project, check the Web site

Enhancing Biological Control to Stabilize Western Orchard IPM Systems ($2.2 million)

Dr. Vince Jones, entomologist at Washington State University, is the lead researcher on this project, which aims to enhance biological control of insect and mite pests in apple, pear, and walnut orchards. The goal is to reduce pesticide use, lower costs, and improve worker safety.

The five-year project involves nine scientists from Washington, Oregon, and California, who are working together to gain a better understanding of:

  • the impacts of pesticides on natural enemies
  • the best way to monitor natural enemies
  • which natural enemies are the most important
  • the economic impacts of changing to new pest management programs and
  • how to encourage growers to switch to new programs

    Jones said the project allows scientists who have worked separately with codling moth in apples, pears, or walnuts, to pool their expertise. They’ll develop degree-day models and monitoring tools for natural enemies of codling moth to help growers time pesticide applications for when they have the least impact on biological control. More than 25 percent of the grant will be devoted to implementation and finding out how best to get the information out to growers.

    Jones said scientists have been doing portions of the project in apples with funding from the Research Commission, but this new project leverages those funds to bring in additional expertise. "We have a really good team, and I think we’ll be able to make some good progress," Jones said.

    Innovative Technologies for Thinning of Fruit ($1.0 million)

    A team of agricultural engineers, economists, and extension educators from across the country will research mechanical thinning techniques as an alternative to hand thinning, which is expensive, and chemical thinning, which produces variable results.

    The team aims to:

  • find out which type of tree architecture is best suited to mechanical thinning
  • modify existing nonselective mechanical thinning prototypes to make them more suited to how trees are grown
  • develop more advanced, sensor-based selective thinning equipment
  • look at how cost-effective mechanical thinning would be, compared with other thinning methods, and how readily growers might adopt the new technology

    Project leader Dr. Paul Heinemann, agricultural engineer at Pennsylvania State University, said one of the existing prototypes is a string thinner that works like a weed whacker. The other is a drum shaker for green fruit thinning. While those machines can reduce the crop on the tree, there is no control over which blossoms or fruit are removed.

    He expects that those thinners will be commercially available soon, but selective thinning systems will require more research. Agricultural engineers from Penn State, University of California-Davis, WSU, University of Illinois, University of Maryland, and Clemson University will collaborate to develop a selective system, using machine vision and imaging technology to identify the blossoms or fruit on the tree that need to be removed and a robotic mechanism to remove them.

    Heinemann said the researchers are optimistic that they will have a prototype of a selective thinner by the end of the four-year project. •

    Dr. Sanjiv Singh, robotics professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, will speak about the potential for automation in specialty crops during the Washington State Horticultural Association’s convention in Yakima, Washington, on December 1.