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SARE Farmer Grant

In 2012 Brookfield Farm (http://brookfieldfarm.org/) of Amherst, MA received a USDA Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) Farmer Grant (www.sare.org) titled Evaluation of Inexpensive, Wireless Sensor Networks for Managing Small Vegetable Farms (project FNE12-748).  This section summarizes the results and research from our project that can help other vegetable farms use wireless sensors.

Check out this video describing our project made by SARE in the fall of 2012.

Our project personnel were:

  • Dan Kaplan, Project Director, Manager, Brookfield Farm, Amherst, MA
  • Larry Manire, Technical Manager, Databasics, Coventry, RI, Computer consultant and farm volunteer
  • Tim Reilly, Technical Consultant, Reilly Technology, Kelowna, BC, Canada, Wireless sensor networking software engineer
  • Ruth Hazzard, Technical Advisor, Extension Educator, UMass Vegetable Program, Center for Agriculture, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, MA.
  • Amanda Brown, Technical Advisor, also of the UMass Vegetable Program

We acquired and tested wireless sensors from seven manufacturers and related equipment such as solar shields, solar panels, wind generators, and directional antennas from additional suppliers.  We focused on the following sensors that we felt would be most useful for small vegetable farms at least in New England: 

  • air temperature
  • relative humidity
  • soil temperature
  • soil moisture
  • leaf wetness
  • rainfall which usually includes wind speed and direction

We tested the sensors:

  • at Brookfield  Farm, in fields of strawberries, sugar snap peas, butternut squash, broccoli, peppers, eggplants, tomatoes, flowers, in a field house of tomatoes, and in the greenhouse, walk-in cooler and root cellar vegetable storage areas for both summer and winter.
  • at the UMass Research Farm, temperature/humidity using an outside sensor and in three low tunnels for a research project testing winter growing conditions conducted by Ruth Hazzard, part of part of the SARE Research and Education project LNE10-297 get number, Expanding Winter Production and Sales of Vegetable Crops in New England
  • for a vegetable storage conditions research project in the same grant conducted by Ruth Hazzard at Brookfield Farm, temperature/humidity in the root cellar and outside
  • at Red Fire Farm (redfirefarm.com), temperature/humidity in a large lower level storage facility and outside
  • at Simple Gifts Farm (www.simplegiftsfarmcsa.com), temperature/humidity in a walk-in cooler and outside

Project Results

During the project here are some of the ways our farmers found the sensors helpful:

  • were alerted by cell phone of possible frost on strawberries, peppers and eggplants and were able to take precautions,
  • on numerous occasions were able to check temperature and humidity in the greenhouse, walk-in cooler, and root-cellar to monitor vegetable storage conditions and received six iPhone alerts when temperatures exceeded limits; was very handy for checking temperatures early in the morning using the iPhone and avoiding having to get out of bed,
  • were able to monitor a walk-in cooler temperature problem from out of town and order a fix at a critical moment,
  • were alerted that it was 112 degrees inside a tomato field house in July because the roll-up sides were accidentally left down,
  • on numerous occasions found that the low temperatures in certain fields were four to nine degrees colder than the "local" weather  forecast predicted; this was new information and will affect use of the field in the future
  • was able to assist Town of Amherst by providing a pdf of sensor readings that showed sub 28F temperatures for 2 hours at the farm which killed all mosquitoes and enabled town to lift an EEE based ban on outdoor activity October 13th
  • were able to monitor low tunnel internal temperatures to observe relative heat retention and determine when to remove the cover in the spring
  • detected a low humidity condition in a vegetable storage facility

We found that the sensors helped to prevent field and storage crop problems in time but perhaps more importantly we gained peace of mind by being able to easily check conditions on the computer or iPhone that previously would have required someone to check on them in person.

Our best results were with the temperature/humidity sensors later in the season.  Because of delays in equipment delivery and construction we didn't get soil temperature, soil moisture, leaf wetness and weather station readings until too late into the season to be of much use.   These sensors, at that time, required quite a bit of programming and construction including adding enclosures and wiring.  Near the end of the project the same vendor issued a new version that eliminated that effort but it was too late to really use them in the growing season.  However we strongly feel that such sensors can be useful for vegetable farming and are included in our recommendations below and look forward to further testing and use of the additional sensors.  

Conclusion

We thank the USDA SARE program for funding this project and hope that this web site helps you decide how you might use wireless sensors. It doesn’t take many frozen crops or overheated walk-ins or greenhouses to justify the initial expense for sensors. And the peace of mind you get by knowing at any time what conditions are removes one more source of stress in the very stressful job of growing vegetables. Good luck with your sensor deployment!

We plan to keep this site up to date as much as possible as the technology advances.  If we have missed important vendors, consultants, developments, or technologies that should be included in this document please email us at lemanire@cox.net.  If you take issue with any of our conclusions please let us know that too.