Smart farming takes root
Enriched by technology, harvests flourish anew
Red barn: check. Tractor: check. Smartphone? As civilization increasingly depends on technology, so does farming. Despite global challenges—and true to the university’s land-grant roots—UMass researchers and alumni are spearheading efforts to keep farming viable and sustainable well into the future.
“We’re rooting for clean energy, and we’re rooting for farming and food.”
In many parts of the country, solar panels dot the landscape in empty fields. But what if those fields didn’t need to be empty? Dwayne Breger ’94PhD, director of the UMass Clean Energy Extension, says, “With dual-use solar, you do simultaneous solar collection and farming on the same land, together.” In theory, placing solar panels higher off the ground and spacing them farther apart allows the sun to hit both the panels and the plants sufficiently. In the mid-2000s, UMass installed one of the first dual-use arrays in an experimental farm in South Deerfield to test the theory.
Now, Breger’s team is working with three solar developers on eight different farms. “These site trials will greatly expand the data,” Breger says. “You’ll see active agriculture taking place under the array. It could be row crops or a field of hay or sheep grazing,” Breger says. “Raising the panels helps distribute the shading, and also allows farm machinery to get under and around them.” Fine-tuning dual-use farming can provide farmers with another revenue stream and more solar power for the rest of us. “We’re rooting for clean energy, and we’re rooting for farming and food.”
“I’m an apple person. But I do know how to use a smartphone.”
Grab your phone: An apple tree in bloom is Instagram-worthy. Researcher Dan Cooley, professor of plant pathology at the Stockbridge School of Agriculture, hopes that soon, many farmers will be able to use their smartphones for something else: thinning the crop. “Apple growers need to knock off a certain amount of fruitlets,” he explains. A common practice is to use chemicals, but farmers first have to gauge a number of variables—including the weather, the temperature, and blossom size—to judge how much to spray. The alternative is to “select a number of tiny fruitlets and measure them with micrometer calipers, give them a couple days to grow, and then go back in and do the same thing,” Breger says. “Then you have a much better idea of what to do in terms of chemical applications.”
Okay, but who wants to go into their orchards with tiny calipers and measure fruitlets all day? “We should be able to use computer vision and artificial intelligence to measure fruitlets,” Cooley says. His goal is to evolve the process from working with large, very expensive cameras down to simple cellphone cameras. “I’m pretty confident it will happen,” he says. “I don’t consider myself a computer person. I’m an apple person. But I do know how to use a smartphone.”
“We know what the problem is.”
A few years ago, geosciences Assistant Professor Isaac Larsen was driving along in the Midwest, near where he grew up. “The hilltops in the landscape no longer had organic rich soil—just subsoil. I could tell by the color,” he recalls. A big driver of soil erosion and degradation is the plow. “Every time a plow goes across the landscape, it fluffs up the soil,” Larsen explains, "and the soil moves down the slope.” Over the course of a century and a half, that’s a lot of soil.
What to do? Supported by NASA, Larsen and his team are utilizing satellite imagery to analyze the problem. “We can relate soil color that we see in satellite imagery to the amount of carbon in the soil, and then relate that amount of carbon to a soil horizon,”—or soil layer—explains Evan Thaler, a doctoral student working with Larsen. The team has been able to show that around a third of all cultivated land in the United States has lost its rich topsoil. “The next step,” says Thaler, “is for policy makers to incorporate this information. If we can rebuild the carbon in the hilltops, we’re actually pulling carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and putting it back in the soil, so it’s absolutely a climate change issue as well.” Larsen backs that up. “We have to mitigate the effect we’ve had,” he says. “Restoration of carbon to soils is one piece of the solution.”
“It’s everyone’s right to have access to land and grow food.”
Some technology optimizes existing farmland. But at the New England nonprofit Land For Good, connecting farmers to the land is the name of the game. “Some people explain what we do as a kind of matchmaking,” says Shemariah Blum-Evitts ’09, program director. “There are older farmers who don’t have family ready to take over, and there are first-time farmers who need to find and finance suitable land.” Land For Good helps put the two together—and also identifies land just waiting for someone to start planting.
How best to match up a new, eager farmer with land? Having studied landscape architecture and regional planning and written her master’s thesis on geographic information systems (GIS) mapping, Blum-Evitts has some ideas that she’s putting to good use “GIS enables you to work with different layers of information,” she says. “You have a street layer and waterways layer and forest layer. You can use it to see what’s currently in active farming, and what is available for farming.” Once her team extracts that data, they work with municipalities to identify plots for agricultural use. And who says farms have to be acres of fields? Some small pieces of farmland are actually located in urban centers. “A lot of people are interested in farming on two acres and creating a business model,” Blum-Evitts says. “It’s everyone’s right to have access to land and grow food. There’s a lot of land here in New England that can be used to grow food locally.”
“A boom in the local food/tech space”
Okay, who really understands blockchain—you know, the technology behind Bitcoin? “I would never pretend to,” laughs Hannah Leighton ’17MS. “But I do understand the impact it can have.” Leighton wears two hats. First, she’s the director of research and evaluation at Farm to Institution New England, which serves as a network backbone connecting institutions to farms. How does food get from point A to point B? “The food supply chain is pretty behind in terms of transparency and traceability,” Leighton says. Transparency matters when, for example, a large college campus commits to procuring a significant chunk of its dining hall food from local farms, as UMass has.
Which brings us to Leighton’s second hat: working as a value chain specialist for Ripe.io—a startup created by former finance folks. “Ripe.io extracts essential information to follow an item along the supply chain, and puts it all in one place—that’s the blockchain,” Leighton explains. “Where is the farm located, really? Is it women or minority owned? The blockchain identifies those key metrics,” she says. Blockchain can’t be altered, only added to, which is why it’s so secure. “Eventually, if you put enough false information on the blockchain, you’ll get caught,” says Leighton. “It weeds out bad actors.”
Having accessible information about your food sources is useful for individuals as well as institutions. “We’ve done pilots where college students can scan a QR code at a salad bar and see different attributes about the food,” Leighton says. The technology is still young, but Leighton is excited. “There will be a bit of a boom coming up in the local food/tech space.”
“This is exactly the work I wanted to do here.”
Some farming problems require satellites and data sets. Others can be addressed more simply—assuming someone takes a moment to consider them. Steve Fernandez, engineering engagement specialist at the College of Engineering, makes sure students in his Engineering Service Learning class do just that. “This class focuses on community-based and grassroots organizations,” Fernandez says, “because I felt they were the ones who had the greatest need.”
Take Nuestras Raíces, a grassroots urban farming initiative in Holyoke. After learning about the farm, Fernandez showed up on their doorstep. “I said in Spanish, ‘I’m dropping in—Puerto Rican-style,’” says Fernandez, who is himself Puerto Rican. “In our culture, when someone stops by, you drop everything and socialize.” Together, Fernandez and the folks at Nuestras Raíces arrived at a project: protecting exposed irrigation pipes in cold weather.
Students landed on an elegant solution—foam insulation coverage for the pipes and a thermal blanket on the ground. “This solution doesn’t consume any fuel, and there’s no need for irrigation in the winter.” It’s a truly sustainable technique for a farm like Nuestras Raíces. “I did my degree in engineering because of my knowledge of my heritage, and my sense that through engineering we could address people’s needs,” Fernandez says. “This is exactly the work I wanted to do here.”
The future of farming, in other words, has taken root—in the soil, in data clouds, in satellites, and even in your phone.
READ ON: Learn how Assistant Professor of Operations and Information Management Priyank Arora is using technology to help smallholder farmers in Africa.
Top image: Jaren Huie ’22 with newly planted crops under solar arrays at the UMass experimental farm site