Washington State University has hired one of the nation’s top university scientists in agricultural automation and mechanization to fill a new position at its Precision Agriculture Center in Prosser.

Dr. Qin Zhang, an agricultural engineer at the University of Illinois, will join WSU on July 16, and planned to bring six to eight members of his support staff to work with him. Some have already moved to WSU and have been working with Dr. Fran Pierce.

"Basically, what we have here is an instant program," said Dr. Dan Bernardo, dean of WSU’s College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences. Zhang has already written several proposals for funding through the federal Specialty Crops Research Initiative to support work he will do in Washington. Funding for the new position was included in WSU’s Unified Agricultural Initiative that the Washington State Legislature funded two years ago. Bernardo said the university protected those funds, despite its budget constraints, because automation and mechanization is a critical part of developing state-of-the-art production systems for horticultural crops in Washington State. Labor costs, labor availability, and worker safety are of great concern to specialty crop producers, he noted.

The university conducted a national search before appointing Zhang, whom Bernardo described as "a tremendous scientist."

Zhang earned his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering at Zhejiang Agricultural University, China, and a master’s degree in agricultural engineering from the University of Idaho. He earned his doctorate at the University of Illinois in 1991 and was a post-doctoral research associate until 1994. He then worked for the Automated Analysis Corporation and Caterpillar Inc., both in Peoria, Illinois, before rejoining the University of Illinois’s agricultural engineering department in 1997. His research areas include mechanical and electrical engineering and computer-aided farming systems.

Specialty crops

In Illinois, he has worked primarily with field crops such as soybeans and corn. Zhang said automation technology for field crops is well established and he feels it is time to move to specialty crops.

"I think there’s an opportunity there," he said. "The same basic principles will be applicable, but there are a lot of special issues to be addressed. Based on that, maybe some new technology needs to be developed."

Zhang said his first priority would be to meet with growers to learn more about specialty crop production. He’ll try to identify the major obstacles to automation and then work to remove the obstacles that would have the most impact and would not be too difficult to solve. He’ll be looking for opportunities for automation in the whole production process, not just at harvest.

"This is a good opportunity, and there’s a definite need," he said. "I will try my best, and I will work as hard as I can to get the ball rolling."

Bernardo said WSU expects the automation program to grow significantly because of the availability of grants for work in that area. The university is in the process of hiring two mechanical engineers and hopes to interview candidates in the fall or winter.

"We want to be recognized as a national powerhouse in this area of automation and mechanization," he said.

Automation and mechanization tie in with WSU’s strong genetics and genomics program, he emphasized.

"Those are very complementary in the sense that with our work in automation and mechanization we will be able to, hopefully, harvest in an efficient manner, and you also have to be able to grow these crops in a manner that’s conducive to the use of automated technology. So, through genetics and genomics we can manipulate the plant so that it can interface with these automation technologies. It’s all part of a complete package to try to reduce the cost of production for our tree fruit producers."