Farmers Are Reducing Food Waste by Using Smartphones

For small farmers, especially those in parts of the country that are prone to abrupt fluctuations in temperature, every day is a gamble. If your heating gives out, if a window is accidentally shut, if the temperature drops by a few degrees — you can lose tens of thousands of dollars of produce in storage. But a new system from the University of Vermont could solve that on the cheap, with devices and ideas not too far removed from what’s happening in our own homes.

Storage is a major factor for all farmers; even when you go to the farmers market, you’re hardly ever getting produce that was picked that morning. Fruits, vegetables, and greens have to be stored before they make it to market, and, as anyone who’s tried to keep a bag of spinach fresh for more than two days knows, these are exceptionally delicate goods.

The most minor changes in humidity and temperature can render an entire storehouse’s worth of food rotten and unsellable. A ridiculous 40% of food in this country ends up going to waste, and a major stop in that wasteful journey from farm to landfill comes right at the beginning. Various factors cause farmers of all sorts to lose huge amounts of edible food all the time — just recently, a Canadian dairy farmer dumped 100,000 gallons of milk in the Arctic Ocean due to delays from ice buildup. Arctic ice is a tough obstacle to avoid, but some things, like a sudden, unknown change in temperature or humidity, can be easily addressed with low-cost tech.

The University of Vermont Extension Service has created a new, simple system of sensors that small farmers can install in storage facilities to monitor those conditions. “Typically, small farms that couldn't afford refrigeration equipment would have to physically go to the store rooms and take measurements to make sure that temperature spikes or dips weren't ruining the produce before it got to market,” says Megan Treacy of Treehugger. Big farmers already have big crews and budgets for equipment, but small farmers have to think smarter. “Unless they have extensive equipment budgets, they’re stuck with manually-controlled irrigation and temperature, and humidity-controlled storage is usually out of the question,” says Daniel Alarcon, an analyst of tech, agriculture and business.

The university’s system allows farmers to monitor temperature and humidity in any of their storage facilities with a simple smartphone app, which allows them to avoid needlessly wasting time checking on produce that’s doing fine. But more important, the app alerts them if something’s wrong. It’s kind of the agricultural equivalent of so-called “Internet of Things” systems like GE’s experiments with Quirky or the Nest Thermostat. “We’ve already seen with Nest that people are taking an interest in becoming more than a passive consumer in the field of energy, and that basic concept has applications beyond the consumer — this farm system is the same idea, but taken to a new place,” says Caroline Moss, who writes about startups and new technology for Business Insider.

After a year of testing its program with 9 small farmers in the Northeast, UVM reported that the rate of vegetables that needed to be thrown out was reduced by a whopping thirty to fifty percent, adding about $10,000 to each farm’s coffers. And best of all, the system costs only $500 in equipment, and another $500 for installation. For larger farmers, this particular system may not offer the most bang for its buck, but, says Moss, it’s totally scalable. “The great thing about smart systems like this is that you can always add more sensors and update the software. For bigger farms, that might mean on-demand video monitoring, audio monitoring or even tools to change humidity or automatically water or feed plants from afar,” she says.

One quirk is that the system requires an Internet connection, which small farmers don’t always have over their entire property — but UVM is wiling to set up a cell network when necessary to cover the gaps.

And that’s great, because this system is addresses an issue that may not get much press, but affects all of us. Given the extreme amount of waste that can so obviously be easily prevented with just a little bit of technology, it’s almost surprising this system has taken so long to come around. “Reducing food waste doesn’t just save money for farmers — it saves food, and what could be more fundamental than that?” says Moss.