Generating actionable insights from integrated data: How foris can assist processing tomato farmers
This article provides an overview of how foris.io uses data from different precision agriculture hardware and farm records to help processing tomato farmers reduce resources use, save on operating costs, and improve yield.
Processing tomatoes are different from tomatoes that are available at the grocery store, in that they are grown specifically for making products such as tomato paste, pasta sauces, ketchup, and other concentrates. The U.S is the largest producer accounting for nearly 30% of the world’s processing tomatoes (in tonnage), with California producing over 90% of the national share. Growing processing tomatoes is a complex, resource-intensive process involving high production costs per acre. The crop is very sensitive to environmental conditions, nutrients, and pests, requiring farmers to keep track of several soil, weather, crop health, and treatment parameters. Farmers also need to be able to do this simultaneously over several fields in a single season. A successful crop is not only dependent on a high yield, but also on the crop adhering to the processor’s specifications. These include fruit size, color, soluble solids content, and defects like mold and insect damage .
In order to closely monitor field conditions and produce a profitable crop, farmers adopt precision agriculture tools such as drip irrigation, sensors, satellite/drone imagery, and weather stations. While precision agriculture tools are great for collecting real-time data, they are typically “point” solutions, as in, they focus on a single aspect of crop or soil health and are not connected to each other. This results in farmers having to manage several data streams/applications to gain a comprehensive view of what is happening on the field. Also, while there is a lot of data available, there is still a lack of actionable agronomic insights that farmers can readily incorporate into existing practices to sustainably produce a profitable crop.
Building a connected data ecosystem to create value for farmers
foris.io is building a hardware-agnostic decision-making platform (web and mobile app) to bridge this gap and provide a comprehensive solution to farmers from seed to harvest. We partner with several precision agriculture hardware providers for data integration and deliver actionable agronomic insights, from one central platform. Our goal is to provide agronomic intelligence that helps farmers minimize inputs, reduce operating costs, and improve yields. Additionally, as we digitize all of the critical farm data during the growing season, we are able to help farmers participate in food transparency/food blockchain programs that are now gaining popularity with processors and retailers.
Here are a few examples of how we can help farmers grow a sustainable and profitable processing tomato crop:
Preparation for the growing season
Selecting the ideal field for planting is the most important step, and farmers have to select the field well in advance of the planting date to start preparations for the growing season. Soils with a high clay or sand content can cause water drainage issues or harbor root-knot nematode populations  that can adversely impact yield. Similarly, high soil salinity and low nutrient concentrations can adversely impact crop quality and yield, requiring correctional treatments prior to the growing season.
Our team can work with farmers to analyze soil reports and crop history to determine the most suitable fields for planting. Further, based on soil type and chemistry we can recommend correctional practices to prepare the field for the growing season. We can also help farmers select crops for seasonal rotation to reduce pest populations.
Fine-tuning irrigation to reduce operating costs and improve fruit quality
Irrigation and associated labor can account for up to 25% of the operating costs for processing tomatoes through the growing season. Irrigation requirements for processing tomatoes vary at different stages of growth. For instance, when tomato seedlings are transplanted from the greenhouse to the field, they are very sensitive to soil moisture. As the crop matures from the first bloom to when the fruit sets, the irrigation requirements increase. Finally, after the fruits turn red, farmers need to reduce irrigation (deficit irrigation) to ensure maximum soluble solids content in the fruit. The soluble solids content or “Brix” content is a critical factor in determining the quality and price of the tomato crop.
Irrigation is scheduled based on Crop Evapotranspiration (ETc) which is calculated based on Reference Evapotranspiration (ETo), and a Crop Coefficient (Kc), where evapotranspiration accounts for both the evaporation of water from the soil as well as transpiration from the plant. Farmers typically refer to the closest public weather station for ETo , and calculate ETc based on the crop growth stage. However, public weather stations can be miles away from the farm, and the values of critical weather parameters can be very different than those on the farm. For example, the chart below shows a comparison of daily ETo values between a public station located closest to the farm, and a weather station we partner with, that is located on the farm. As seen below, ETo values can be very different, resulting in over or under irrigation that increases operating costs and adversely impacts crop quality. Further, future ET projections are typically not available from public weather stations, requiring farmers to make complex calculations for irrigation scheduling. Moreover, irrigation also needs to be fine-tuned in light of how the soil and crop are responding to the current strategy. All of these tasks are time-consuming and take valuable time away from critical farming tasks. Farmers have no easy way to compare real-time and historical data from different sources and understand what changes need to be made to their irrigation schedule.
foris.io partners with on-site weather station providers to get accurate micro-climate data and provides current and future ETc based on crop type and growth stage. Further, we combine agronomic research with data from other precision agriculture hardware partners (soil moisture sensors, aerial imagery, etc.) to generate irrigation recommendations based on holistic data. For instance, we can suggest irrigation adjustments based on plant-available soil moisture, modify schedules based on micro-climate changes, plant stress, and stage of growth. We can also help farmers determine and manage their deficit irrigation strategy to maximize soluble solids content while maintaining a healthy crop.
Improving effectiveness of crop treatments
Crop treatments (e.g.: fertilizer, pesticide, insecticide application) for processing tomatoes through the growing season amount to 20-25 % of the total operating costs. By tracking and adapting application rates to soil and environmental conditions, and crop health, farmers can improve effectiveness and reduce application rates to save significantly on operating costs.
foris combines real-time soil data, soil test records, micro-climate data, and crop-specific research to enable precision fertilizer applications. For instance, if fertilizers are applied too early in the development stage, the uptake rate is slow and will lead to degradation of the fertilizer by soil microorganisms. We can provide recommendations on fertilizer rates and application intervals that integrate into existing treatment practices. Also, we can help farmers track and ensure that nutrients are available at the right depth to be utilized by the plant, and that it does not leach to deeper depths during the next irrigation event.
We also use microclimate data, field history records, and crop-specific research to help farmers with pest and disease management. Processing tomatoes are susceptible to numerous pests and diseases during different stages of growth. We can alert farmers on what pests and diseases to look out for, and strategies to control them. Further, we can also provide farmers access to current and future microclimate data that they can use to decide application windows.
foris.io can also help farmers keep track of crop treatments and notify employees of restricted interval entries and locations, through our crop treatment mobile app (foriscroptreatment app).
Helping farmers with sustainability and transparency
There has been an increase in the demand for food transparency and sustainability over the past decade. Consumers, retailers, and processors want to understand where food comes from what goes into food production. Organizations are building food trust platforms based on blockchain principles to enable data sharing and verification. There is a lot of data available on the produce from when it leaves the farm to when it reaches retail outlets. However, accurate data on what goes into production at the farm level is often not available. For processing tomatoes in particular, since so many factors including size, color, acidity, sugar content, etc. decide the quality of the fruit, understanding what crop treatments and environmental conditions lead to the ideal crop is essential to both processors and farmers. Since we collect comprehensive data from seed to harvest on the field level, we can work with farmers to organize this data with the appropriate data privacy and security checks and make it a marketing tool for the farmers. We can also document sustainable practices for farmers to share with retailers and other reporting agencies.
foris.io is an agronomic decision-making platform working with both farmers and precision agriculture tool providers to produce profitable and sustainable crops. We started working with processing tomatoes in 2019, and we are looking to expand our crop portfolio in 2020. Reach out to us at email@example.com if you would like to learn more.
Hartz et al., Processing Tomato Production in California, Publication 7228, UC Vegetable Research and Information Center
University of California’s Integrated Pest Management Program Guidelines