The Cornucopia Project: 'Smart' agriculture and the Internet of Tomatoes

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PETERBOROUGH, N.H. — What do you get when you cross The Internet of Things with farming? Why, the Internet of Tomatoes, of course.

Three organizations are working together to help boost and "future-proof" the New England food economy against some of the challenges facing 21st century farming with the help of the Internet, technology and good old fashioned farming.

Analog Devices, Inc., The Cornucopia Project and ripe.io are working together to teach future farmers how to use the Internet of Things and blockchain technologies to track the conditions and movement of produce from "Farm to Fork" to make decisions that improve quality, yields, and profitability.

Erick Olsen, who works with the Smart Agriculture team at Analog Devices — a company that makes sensor and measurement technology — said they weren't sure where the project was going when it first got started. At first, he explained, they were just looking for someplace to use their technology and eventually wondered if agriculture might be a good fit.

"What we feel is an important part of this project as well as taking agriculture further into the 21st century is providing data," said Olsen, "helping farmers to make decisions which today they make a lot based on their intuition or in generational knowledge they've gotten from their parents as they've taken over a farm or maybe from school. A lot of that is learned, it's hands on, but a lot of times it's not data driven. And technology could help that, help them sleep better at night, help them see how their decisions affect their profitability, how their decisions can make a higher quality food and ultimately a more profitable food for farmers."

Enter the Cornucopia Project, a Peterborough-based, nonprofit organization dedicated promoting health eating by growing organic food in the community, with the community, and for the community. Since their inception, they've accomplished this through three major education program areas: School, Community and Farm to Fork.

The project's Farm to Fork program is an agricultural and entrepreneurship initiative that teaches students not only how to plant their own crops but the business of farming. As part of the program, Cornucopia officials hire and train so called Farm to Fork Fellows — ConVal Regional High School sophomores — to develop a business plan and manage a small year round agricultural operation.

Last year the fellows built a 30-by-96-foot hoop house, planned and planted a growing zone of 6,000 square feet, set up a small business to sell local produce within the community and cultivated organic produce through the winter and spring. They even developed a growth plan to expand their business into a niche market that promotes healthy eating and engages local producers.

This year, they took on the Internet of Tomatoes project. One of the goals of the project was to use Analog's sensors to test the tomatoes the Cornucopia kids were growing to gather empirical data on whether or not local tomatoes tasted as good, better or worse than commercial tomatoes.

To do that, sensors were placed on long poles in the soil next to the tomatoes in the hoop house. These were there to gather information on temperature, humidity, soil composition and the like. Meanwhile students tested each individual tomato with handheld sensors which can scan for the sweetness, ripeness, salinity and acidity, among a few other things in the tomato.

"And that's the being done at the farm level which has never been done before," Olsen said. "So being able to take that technology out to the farm, is innovation in our approach."

All of that collected data is then sent to the cloud. Daisy Young, 16, of Hancock, is a junior and second year fellow with the program explained that the Farm to Fork Fellows are overseeing this project by monitoring, scanning and analyzing the data. The team is currently using that data to manage and run a comparative study between imported and local tomatoes and their ripening process after they are purchased or picked from the vine.

"During the school year, the sustainable agricultural class, will be able to support this data collection," she said. "In addition to data collection, fellows are also growing and marketing the very tomatoes being analyzed in this project. As well as holding several meetings with the Internet of Tomatoes team which designed this experiment. This has involved managing logistics, such as identifying project variables, determining appropriate sample size and learning how to use the technology."

Kelley Akerley, 16, also of Hancock and a second year Farm to Fork Fellow, said that the team hopes this project will build strong relationships within the Peterborough community. And that process begins with the famers, like them, she said, selling.

"Next local grocery stores like Maggie's [Marketplace] and Roy's Market and assisted living homes like Summerhill, and restaurants like Farmhouse Table, buy our produce," Akerley said of the process. "Finally consumers eat this produce and interactions become prominent within the local food economy. With the information coming through this experiment, a strong demand for local produce will be made, that will boost yield and hopefully quality as well."

She said by connecting all of these players together they hope to increase transparency, accountability and efficacy of the food system.

She also said that through this project, they expect farmers to improve growing practices and make more money.

"By seeing what the nutrients in the tomatoes lack, they can make amendments to the soil at earlier stages of the plant to make for the healthiest fruit," Akerley said. "Competition may come into play if certain varieties of tomatoes score better in this experiment. This will potentially motivate farmers and vendors to sell the most worthwhile tomatoes at a premium rate.

"In the end, we believe tomatoes will be better and even tastier as well."

And so far, the data is bearing out the hypothesis that local tomatoes do in fact, empirically taste better.

"We're still in the initial wave of experiment, so we haven't done proper analysis of this experiment," Young cautioned as she was discussing the team's findings, "however something we have found surprising is that the longer the tomatoes sit, the higher of a general quality score it receives. This is likely due to the ripening process of the tomatoes. So far, we have also found that local tomatoes are performing better when scanned than the commercial tomatoes."

As for how this can help farms outside of the Cornucopia Project, that's where the idea of the Internet of Things, or blockchaining comes into play, said Francis XX, the Chief Food Officer with Ripe.io, the California-based startup partially funding this project.

"So what we want from a marketing perspective," he said, "is to be able to go out there and say, 'my tomato is better, it is more sugary, it was out in the fields yesterday as opposed to that tomato which was in the field three weeks ago,' and we measure that with the analog devices tools, but we capture that in a piece of data."

And what the blockchain does, he said, can help a farmer authenticate that these claims are true, that the tomato is indeed sugary, it does indeed have that characteristic. Furthermore, he said, the blockchain also allows people in the ecosystem to do a variety of things which known as smart transactions. Francis Gouillart explained that with an anecdote that actually led the company to the project. He said he and his partners were talking to the hands at Rosaly's Farm in Peterborough, when he spotted what turned out to be 2,000 pounds of tomatoes in the compost heap.

"It's obviously a great sorrow when you have to compost 2,000 pounds of tomatoes," he said. "And the reason they couldn't sell them is because in the heat of the action, right around Labor Day, all the tomatoes come at the same time; no one is able to buy those tomatoes. The system is not geared up so that they can go out and sell those tomatoes or make a tomato sauce or just go work with ConVal High School to make a batch of sauce for the school."

But the blockchain, he said, allows them to set up those kinds of transactions. By automatically recording a lot of that data, they can trigger so called conditional transactions.

"If you have too many tomatoes and they have those great characteristics, maybe ConVal High School can buy them or maybe Roy's is willing to take an overflow of those tomatoes, so that's what the blockchain enables us to do," he said.

The team said eventually they want farmers to be able to access the data and manage these triggers through an app on a phone. They also have designs on finding a way to use large yields of tomatoes to create a killer local tomato sauce that could be sold commercially.

For more information on the Cornucopia Project visit cornucopiaproject.org. For more information on ripe.io visit ripe.io. And for more information on Analog Devices visit analog.com.

Melanie Plenda can be contacted at plendame@gmail.com.

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