Ag colleges have little to offer fruit and vegetable growers

There’s a ton of opportunity out there for a farm boy or girl who has some familiarity with HTML5 or Adobe ActionScript. Write an app to help the fruit, nut or vegetable growers you knew in 4-H or FFA; post it to the Apple Store; make some spending money.

This diagram shows the CropManage app components.
Image courtesy of UC Davis Extension.

Land-grant colleges are way behind the app curve when it comes to developing applications for horticulture and related fields. Sure, there are apps for weather, and there are apps for corn and soybeans. But what about citrus or carrots or cukes?

The mobile media revolution that has swept over the world the last five years has left agriculture in the dust. What stands out about this situation is that the universities that have historically led farmers to new, beneficial technology have not stepped up to mobile technology with any real vigor.

Nothing is quite as essential as eating (except breathing). And yet, in a December 2011 study on agriculture and rural development apps, World Bank researchers could only identify 92 agriculture and rural development apps produced outside the U.S.

The number of U.S. agricultural applications is no less depressing. There are, at best, an equal number of apps that were developed in this country.

This is a significant concern, because there are so few of them and they could be a huge boon to the industry.

Think about it. Smartphones serve as pocket-sized computer terminals, providing portability, convenience, access and, to some extent, processing power, but only if there are enough apps to adequately serve the market.

Theoretically, many of the programs farmers now run on their office computers and inside the cabs of their tractors, and even access to the Web, can be accomplished with a mobile phone, as long as it’s a smartphone. Smartphones differ from older cellular phones because they can be used to download specially designed programs called apps.

The buck stops … ?

Agriculture traditionally looks for its innovation, or at least the transfer of information about new technology, to come from the land-grant university system. Until now, those universities have either created solutions to production problems through research, or assured farmers access to those solutions via the extension service.

It would make sense for universities to embrace this technology. Many apps are simply extensions of Web applications, something university extension services have been involved with, although only recently.

App development costs are not overly expensive, but they can present problems for cash-strapped ag colleges and extension services. “The funding pool is pretty shallow,” says Jeff Hino, Oregon State University Extension learning technology leader. “We should be doing mobile first, but we should also be mobile-smart by sharing our resources.”

Application developer Anthony O’Geen of the University of California-Davis.
Photo courtesy of UC Davis Extension.

Cornell and the University of Georgia both have one professional horticulture app. Michigan State University, North Dakota State University, Oregon State University, Rutgers University, the University of Arizona, the University of Idaho, the University of Florida and Texas A&M had none.

Several of these land-grant schools had apps in the making, but almost none of them had more than one or two. All of them said they were in the very earliest development stages.

In contrast, the University of California-Davis had two hort apps and a few more in development that were under wraps. The same is true at the University of Tennessee.

South Dakota’s horticulture industry is largely limited to a number of community-supported agriculture “gardens.” South Dakota State University (SDSU) had more than 40 smartphone apps either in development, close to release or on the market. Only one was horticulture-related; it was designed for those in the state’s garden industry.

SDSU’s advance into app development resulted from some big budget cuts, said Emery Tschetter, SDSU Extension’s head of communications and marketing. “We decided the app represented a very cost-efficient way to continue to supply information to our constituents.”

Michael Cahn is the developer of the CropManage app.
Photo courtesy of UC Davis Extension.

What’s the “happs” at UC Davis?

Michael Cahn, a UC Davis Extension water resource adviser, is in the testing phase with an app called CropManage. Designed as a water and nitrogen manager for lettuce growers in California’s Central Coast region, it was slated to launch this month.

This is a small region geographically, but the area produces 75 percent of the lettuce consumed in the U.S.

App users input various kinds of information about their soils and wells. “This information is both secure and private. Only the farmers who input this data may view or use it,” says Cahn. “As system administrator, even I can’t access it.”

The water management module uses data collected from California Irrigation Management Information System (CIMIS) weather stations and the farm data to perform “lots of calculations.” Within 30 seconds of signing in and making a request, CropManage tells farmers how much to irrigate.

The nitrogen management module has growers do a quick nitrate test on their soil and input that data, as well as the crop’s stage of growth. Based on that information, it calculates a nitrogen application estimate.

CropManage’s Soil Survey map screen is handy for producers.
Image courtesy of UC Davis Extension.

Cahn also built in a reporting system for farmers to use when they file state and federal fertilizer usage compliance reports.

Initially, Cahn’s app will only be useful to lettuce growers. He plans to expand the app’s capabilities by 2014 so it can be used for water and nitrogen decisions for celery, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, raspberries, blackberries and strawberries.

Another UC Davis Extension specialist, Anthony O’Geen, along with Dylan Beaudette, now with the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, created a free app called SoilWeb. “Using USDA Soil Survey data, it uses GPS to identify where you are and what soils you are standing on, plus all the other data in the soil survey,” O’Geen says.

The app actually links users to a UC Davis server housing USDA-NRCS soil survey data. Users receive a text and graphic report on the soil type, its drainage, horizons and profile information.

O’Geen says the next version will also provide mapping and soil information for adjacent land.

IPM apps abound

There are two kinds of agricultural apps – ag weather and integrated pest management – for which there are more than one or two available. The universities of Georgia, Tennessee and Wisconsin each have IPM apps.

The CropManage app’s output tables.
Image courtesy of UC Davis Extension.

Two of them cast users into the role of scout by having them walk their fields or orchards and either take pictures of the insects or weeds they find or visually compare weeds or pests they encounter with images downloaded from databases.

In the stable of IPM apps, there is one that stands out. Developed at the University of Tennessee (UT), IPMPro (there is also a Lite version) operates on a matrix programmed by an entomologist to create an early warning system.

“A lot of apps simply present information from online databases,” says Amy Fulcher, a UT plant sciences assistant professor. “We want growers thinking about problems in advance.”

This U.S. map shows the broad interest, nationwide, in the SoilWeb smartphone app. Although many local land-grant colleges have yet to launch ag-related apps of their own, grower demand is high in every production area of the country.
Graphic courtesy of California Soil Resource Lab.

Using push notifications, the app informs growers of impending pest and disease outbreaks, giving them as much as a week before they appear. Fulcher says their Pro version offers chemical control options, but the Lite version does not.

“We want growers thinking about problems in advance,” says Amy Fulcher, University of Tennessee, pictured with John Watson in Knoxville, Tenn.
Photo courtesy of University of Tennessee.

Commercial apps

Not surprisingly, agribusiness has seen the potential in app creation and has created a number of product-related apps.

One commercial app producer is DTN/The Progressive Farmer, Omaha, Neb., which offers apps to access either a full package of data modules or an <0x00E0> la carte version. Modules include farm news and individual commodity farm markets.

Many of the other agriculture apps are product-specific. For example, TeeJet Technologies of Wheaton, Ill., which bills itself as a company specializing in “application technology” (fertilizer, pesticides and seeds), has an app called SpraySelect. It enables growers to determine which of its products are best suited to deliver various application rates.

PureSense Environmental, Inc. of Fresno, Calif., sells a complete irrigation management system. It collects weather data via stations it installs on farms to create weather and crop-specific irrigation schedules. It also sells a companion pump control program.

Response to the SoilWeb smartphone app, highest in spring, has held steady between 500 and 1,000 throughout the growing season.
Graphic courtesy of California Soil Resource Lab.

For the last four years, the company’s clients have been using an app delivering all the data the system creates – from weather and soil moisture monitoring to soil temperatures and evapotranspiration rates. The app sends growers alerts via text message, email or phone.

The company’s pump control app allows growers to turn their pumps on and off remotely. It also monitors pressure differentials in and out, vibrations, temperature and moisture depth, and allows growers to schedule irrigation events out to weeks in the future.

Past due

One observer described university project development rates as “glacial.” Five years have passed since smartphones were introduced. The land-grant colleges have relegated themselves and their clients to observer status all this time.

While some might argue that land-grant university resources are scarce, others may point to recent activity in Web application development – another area in which they are among the last adopters. None of that explains why they have waited five years to do anything more than tentative toe-dipping.

At the end of the summer, U.S. smartphone market penetration broke the 50 percent mark, according to Chetan Sharma Consulting of Issaquah, Wash. Forty-two percent of the industry’s service revenue comes from data.

In the early part of 2012 Apple announced that it had 700,000 apps available in its App Store. Google’s Apps Marketplace offers 400,000.

These numbers are in sharp contrast to what the land-grant colleges in the top 10 fruit and vegetable-producing states have to offer.

Dr. David Weinstock is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Tyler. He earned his mass media Ph.D. at Michigan State University. Curt Harler, who has a B.S. in agriculture from Penn State University and an M.S. in ag from Ohio State University, is a full-time freelance writer specializing in green topics.