Canadian Manufacturing

Small-scale vegetable farmers using smartphones to monitor storage

The U.S. test program has saved the farmers about US$10, 000 by remotely monitoring storage temperature fluctuations



CRAFTSBURY, Vt.—For years, farmers would have to walk into coolers or other storage spots to ensure the temperature and humidity were at appropriate levels, or risk losing the fruits of their year’s labour.

But some small-scale vegetable producers in Vermont who can’t afford high-tech refrigeration are gaining access to remote monitoring systems that keep cold storage in check, provide updates, and ease their worries—all via smartphone

The University of Vermont Extension Service test project installed remote thermostat technology which is similar to technology used in apartment buildings. Since last winter, the system reduced the loss rates of vegetables that needed to be thrown out or culled by 30 to 50 per cent—adding an average of $10,000 in revenue to each farm, university officials said.

The growers like it because they physically check their storage less often and, thanks to constant updates from their cellphones, are able to detect and quickly fix any problems. Though it’s only being tested in the Northeast, the system could work in any facility where careful attention to temperature and humidity is critical.

“The fact that there’s something in there all the time checking in on it, letting us know what’s going on is extremely helpful,” says Pete Johnson, owner of Pete’s Greens, an organic vegetable and community-supported agriculture farm in northern Vermont.

More than two years ago, his business lost 20 tons of potatoes worth about US$25,000 when the temperature in its cold storage room dropped. Since installing the remote sensors, the farm is losing far less produce and storing it longer.

“Some larger farmers may be able to absorb storage losses or produce losses due to inadequate storage because they’re making it up in volume. But these guys are not able to absorb that loss due to volume,” said Chris Gunter, vegetable production specialist for the North Carolina State University Cooperative Extension.

Remote monitoring already is available nationally to large-scale producers and distribution centres at a cost of more than $10,000. The university’s model costs $500 for the equipment and about $500 to install, according to UVM Extension agricultural engineer Chris Callahan. UVM bridged solved Internet connectivity problems by installing cellular modems where needed.

“The neat thing was that it gave growers real-time visibility into their storage rooms and they didn’t need to be there,” he said. “And the other thing it did … every five minutes getting a data point, you start to realize things you don’t see when you look at the conditions once a day.”

The system has boosted growers’ confidence in their winter crop storage, and most who participated in the UVM project plan to expand storage by at least 50 per cent, Callahan said.

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