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RFID Tracks Leafy Greens in Arizona

University of Arizona researchers have developed a system that would enable users to monitor the lettuce supply chain, or study the productivity of each section of a field.
By Claire Swedberg
May 05, 2010Researchers at the University of Arizona's School of Plant Sciences are preparing to commercialize a system that employs radio frequency identification and GPS technologies to enable farmers to determine the fertility of lettuce fields, while also allowing retailers to trace lettuce back through the supply chain. The system includes RFID- and GPS-enabled harvest-aid machines that are now being used to track not only when and where lettuce was picked, and but also when it was moved into cold storage.

Several years ago, Kurt Nolte, a plant sciences professor and researcher at the university, began seeking a technological solution that would offer farmers a better view into the productivity of their fields, as well as different sections of the same field. For example, some areas of a field may yield considerably more lettuce than others, based on water or soil conditions.

As the cartons move along a harvest-aid machine conveyor belt, an RFID interrogator reads the attached tags.

While he was investigating whether this could be accomplished using RFID, Nolte says, spinach tainted by e. coli bacteria sickened hundreds of people in September 2006, claiming several lives. At that point, he considered how the technology could also be utilized to allow for trace-back in the event of a food-borne illness or other contamination to the lettuce.

Nolte, who serves as the intermediary between the School of Plant Sciences and Yuma County's agricultural industry, designed an RFID system that would be installed on harvest-aid machines (large contraptions brought onto the field at harvesting time, to expedite the manual cutting and processing of crops), as well as at cooling facilities. To develop the system, he worked with the Arizona Iceberg Lettuce Research Council, RFID hardware provider Sirit, which supplied the EPC Gen 2 ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) passive RFID tags and interrogators and GPS devices, and RFID firm TrackerPoint, which provided the integration software that links data to the university's database. For the past two years, Nolte has tested the system in pilot projects in Arizona; he recently described those pilots to an audience at RFID Journal LIVE! 2010, held last month in Orlando, Fla.

Typically, iceberg, romaine or leaf lettuce is harvested by hand, with a 50-foot-wide harvest-aid machine that makes the work more efficient for farm laborers. Workers cut each head of lettuce by hand, and then send it down a chute on the harvest-aid machine. There, on another side of the machine, other workers receive the heads, wrap them in plastic film, pack them into cartons, and place those cartons onto a separate conveyor belt, which then takes them to another section of the harvest-aid machine, for loading onto pallets. The pallets are then taken by truck to cooling facilities, typically less than 10 miles from the field, all within the same day.

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