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Monsanto Hopes to Sow Benefits by Tagging Seed Packets

The company's Agracetus division is set to launch a pilot next month to evaluate RFID for tracking cases of experimental seeds.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor
Dec 26, 2007Monsanto, a multinational provider of bioengineered agricultural products, is planning to launch a technology trial in which it will evaluate the use of passive RFID tags to identify individual seed packets shipped from its Agracetus research and development facility in Middleton, Wis., to its network of test farms, where new, genetically engineered seed is tested.

The goal of the RFID trial, according to Patrick Richgels, an IT specialist with Monsanto, is to determine if using the tags (instead of the bar codes it currently uses) to identify the packets will significantly reduce the amount of time employees spend shipping each case of seeds to the farms.

In order to learn RFID fundamentals and examine whether Monsanto could benefit from the technology, Richgels joined the UW RFID Industry Workgroup, which is comprised of representatives from a range of industries and meets monthly at the University of Wisconsin's RFID Lab (see University of Wisconsin Debuts RFID Lab). The group shares ideas and research around RFID from a business perspective, and also takes part in collaborative research projects and experimentation using RFID.

After attending a number of workgroup meetings and learning the ins and outs of RFID and how other companies were employing it, Richgels worked with Alfonso Gutierrez, the lab's director, to establish a feasibility study within the lab. During these tests, Richgels and the lab staff experimented with both high-frequency (HF) tags, compliant with the ISO 15693 standard, and ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) tags, compliant with the EPC Gen 2 standard, to see how well they could be read on tightly packed, individually tagged seed packets.

The cases Agracetus ships to research farms typically measure 16 inches wide by 24 inches long and carry up to 235 seed packets, so being able to read the individual, tagged packets inside the case was vital. The feasibility tests proved encouraging enough for Richgels to schedule the Agracetus pilot, which he says is set to begin in January 2008 and will last up to six months.

During the pilot, Richgels' team will hand-apply adhesive labels with integrated RFID tags to each packet of seed it ships to the test farms. The serial number the lab staff encodes to each tag will also be printed on the label, both in a bar code and numerals. To verify the contents of each shipment, the team will read the tag on each packet by placing each packed case in front of a fixed-position reader, then record how long it takes to read all the serial numbers. At the test farms, the packets will be received manually, using bar-code scanners to collect each packet's ID.

"After the pilot," Richgels says, "if the performance [of the RFID technology] is proven, we will outfit each [test farm] with RFID read stations." During the trial, the Agracetus participants will benefit through a faster shipping process, but if the RFID tags are used and read by the test farms as well, the benefits will be spread out to both shipping and receiving the seeds.

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