Quantifying hand-harvested produce and its growing conditions

As the fresh produce industry continues to move towards a higher use of technology, we are seeing more sophisticated innovations in all aspects of the industry. There are still gaps where it has been difficult for technology to have any influence on farming outcomes. This is what Nathan Dorn of California-based Food Origins pondered when he was working with berries. He came to realize that there are not a great deal of high-tech applications when it comes to berry growing, including in the collection of harvest data.

"The concept came to mind in 2011, I was working as an innovation specialist in the berry industry," said Dorn. "I didn't understand why innovation was so hard to integrate into specialty crops. There was very little tech, for example, in hand harvested produce and the mentality was to look for home-runs over continuous improvement. This was unlike row crops which are data-rich and technology adoption is embedded in the business continuity plans. We formed a working group and asked, 'What questions might we quantitatively answer if we had the optimal data capture?' We proposed adding it throughout the process, and thus came up with Food Origins. After having received funding and spending several years in the developmental phase, we are now on the verge of launching into the commercial space."

Collecting data and crunching the numbers
In concept, it's a straightforward goal - collect harvest data and use it in the highest resolution to work out what works in the field and what doesn't. But how is this data collected when it comes to non-mechanized crops? Dorn said they use IoT sensors, giving them to every worker gleaning small fruit crops. With the data collected, they then connect the many different variables the grower already captures - and map them with the yields. 

Hand-harvested produce lacks the technological advancements row crops have

"We use the IoT data at high resolution to capture the intersections of all their other data sets in the fields," Dorn explained. "We know how many berries were picked in any particular location, at what time of day, and what the conditions were, just as a start. We then connect the weather and water quality reports, as well as soil quality data and look for relationships."

"All the data is collected on cloud-based servers," he added. "When the grower connects with us and expresses interest in using our platform, we send a team over to build the right data collection platform for them to make sure it will work the way they need it to."

How it helps the grower
The aim of having this productivity map is to help the grower identify faster what is going on in his field and act in ways to make the most money. There are practically endless amounts of data that could potentially be collected, but Dorn said it is the yield and revenue data that matter most. 

"The goal is to build the analytics to optimize the system for farmers, marketers and field workers," he said. "This allows comparative analysis after harvest. Using time of harvest and hyper-local temperature, they evaluate shelf longevity of their produce and know how long it will remain fresh. Or perhaps they may want to compare how the soil variance at different locations affects yield."

Nathan Dorn

Recognition at United Fresh
At the recent United Fresh 2018, Food Origins was awarded "Best New Field Technology". For the fledgling company, this has helped to demonstrate the industry's need, as well as provide validation for the technology they developed. "It was immensely rewarding to be recognized by the industry at United Fresh," Dorn shared. "The industry has realized there is a gap in the information they need to be successful and are rooting for us and this technology. Their vote gave us a great validation point." 

Food Origins is currently finalizing the technical challenges before their commercial launch. Dorn said that in the meantime, the company is running no cost demos with industry leaders, discovering insights that are important. Weeks ago, Food Origins won a pitch event in Camarillo, California, that had Ag. finance and technology leaders as the panel. According to the company, the technology is on the right track and will be of real benefit to growers of specialty crops right now, and other crops in the future.

"Today our focus is on the berry industry in California because this is the area where I have been groomed in and know the needs well," he said. "But we have also been in talks with table grape, melon and other growers for the future. With the challenges that many growers face, from labor shortages to disease pressures, we hope that our contribution can optimize revenues and give growers that extra edge they need. We are excited to be able to deliver our service from 2019 onwards."

For more information:
Nathan Dorn 
Food Origins
Tel: +1 (805) 218-7028 

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