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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
Nolte and his fellow researchers installed a Sirit RFID reader antenna above the conveyor belt of three harvest-aid machines. They printed and encoded ID numbers on RFID paper or plastic labels at their own laboratory, and attached them to the cartons that would be used on the field. Each RFID label also contains farm and product information printed in human-readable text, as well as a 2-D bar code, though the bar-coding is not currently being used in the system. The tagged cartons are then sent to the field with the harvest-aid machine. Data linking the RFID tags' unique ID number with the field in which the lettuce will be harvested is stored in the university's back-end database, using integration software provided by TrackerPoint.

When field workers arrive each morning, they first input their names into the back-end database on a computer at the harvest-aid machine, linking them to the day's harvest. They then pick the lettuce and load it in the cartons, which are placed on the conveyor belt, and the tags are read before being loaded onto pallets. At the same time, a GPS unit on the machine identifies the precise latitude and longitude of the spot at which the lettuce is being harvested. That information, along with the RFID number, is then forwarded to the back-end system via a cellular connection.


Kurt Nolte, a plant sciences professor and researcher at the University of Arizona's School of Plant Sciences
The cartons are placed onto trailers and trucked to the cooling facility. At two of these sites, the researchers have installed fixed Sirit interrogators that capture the ID number of every carton's RFID label, and then transmit that data (via a cabled connection) to the back-end software, which updates each carton's status to indicate it has been placed in cold storage.

The software provides several options, Nolte explains. If a specific head of lettuce is later found to be contaminated, the ID number of the tag placed on that particular carton could be used to track where and when the lettuce was picked, also enabling users to track all other lettuce picked within its vicinity, or by the same employees who had input their names at the beginning of the shift.

In addition, the software can be used to analyze soil productivity. By utilizing GPS data together with RFID reads of each carton packed on a field, the software can provide a map of that field, with shaded areas indicating the locations of the greatest and poorest yields.

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