Maryland researchers working on strawberry field for modern times

Staff Writer

QUEENSTOWN, Md. (June 2, 2015) — A group of University of Maryland researchers is developing a strawberry field fit for the modern age — a digital age replete with increased agrochemical regulations and water scarcity concerns.
The research effort, led by professor John Lea-Cox, seeks to create a system that can regulate irrigation and fertilizer application and continuously monitor for issues such as frost, all in the name of creating a tastier, more environmentally efficient strawberry.
The university’s work, part of a network of grant-funded universities working on the issue, was shown to growers last week at the university Extension’s 2015 annual Strawberry Twilight Meeting at the Wye Research and Education Center.
“This actually replaces the human in the irrigation management decision,” Lea-Cox said as he showed one of the project’s three fields across the state to the group of mostly strawberry growers.
The system replaces the human by using a series of sensors, including soil sensors, that constantly measures the amount of moisture and communicate with a field’s irrigation system, he said.
If needed, small, precise amounts of water can be applied to the constantly monitored crop, resulting in a system that makes water-hungry crops such as strawberries more sustainable in an increasingly water-scarce environment. (Drought-stricken California, for instance, produces about 80 percent of the nation’s strawberries, according to the National Science Foundation.)
The Wye plot includes a weather station and 16 nodes driven into the ground for a deficit irrigation study.
Two other plots at commercial farms include radiation frost sensors that feature thermistors to give precise temperature readings within plant canopies.
Growers can access the data from the sensors on a software system easily accessed by computer or even handheld devices such as tablets and smartphones, Lea-Cox said.
“The return on investment is really big for these sensors,” he said.
The computer program can be personalized so that growers can get alerts sent to their phones or other devices if temperatures or other environmental factors reach critical levels.
“It’ll pester the heck out of you,” he said.
Lea-Cox and his partners believe their technology can save between 50 percent and 70 percent of water applications compared to typical growers, according to a statement from the university.
In addition to the Queenstown plot, tests are conducted at Butler’s Orchard in Germantown and Shlagel Farms in Waldorf.
The university project is part of the National Strawberry Sustainability Initiative funded through a grant from the Walmart Foundation and administered by the University of Arkansas Center for Agricultural and Rural Sustainability.