by Elana Varon

Agriculture: Wireless System Helps Fight Crop Freeze

Nov 15, 20052 mins
MobileNetworkingSmall and Medium Business

Cranberry growers harvested an estimated 649 million pounds of the traditional Thanksgiving fruit this year.

But making a living from the berries isn’t easy. Prices slumped earlier in the decade, and now energy costs are eating into profits. “Growers have been aggressive in looking for ways to save money,” says Jeff LaFleur, executive director of the Cape Cod Cranberry Growers Association, and they’re turning to IT for help.

One problem growers face is that cranberries are vulnerable to frost. Watering protects the berries, so on cold nights, growers can spend hours tending to pumps. To relieve this burden, a few Massachusetts growers have been experimenting with a system called Irrigation Automation, which uses wireless technology and the Internet to control irrigation.

Kevin Connolly, a Massachusetts GPS technology dealer, got the idea for the system during a sales call two years ago. The fleet manager for grower A.D. Makepeace told Connolly that he wished the company had a way to start its pumps remotely. The pumps are driven by automobile engines, so Connolly rigged the pumps with GPS devices that enabled the grower to operate them with a cell phone, similar to the way cars can now be started remotely.

The current version of the system is Web-based, allowing growers to program the pumps according to date, time and temperature recorded by remote sensors. Now Connolly is working on enhancements that will allow users to adjust watering schedules according to rainfall and wind conditions.

George Rogers, VP of A.D. Makepeace, says he expects the system will cut his irrigation-related labor by 80 percent. And by using water more effectively, Rogers says, growers may eventually be able to increase their crops. Recently, the U.S. Department of Agriculture gave LaFleur’s group nearly $187,000 to expand deployment.