Northwest Nazarene University technology blossoms in agriculture


Orchard owner Mike Williamson, right, watches Northwest Nazarene University associate professor Duke Bulanon take an infrared photo of peaches in Nampa.
Orchard owner Mike Williamson, right, watches Northwest Nazarene University associate professor Duke Bulanon take an infrared photo of peaches in Nampa. Idaho Press-Tribune

Standing in the shade of a peach tree, out of the 100 degree-heat, Northwest Nazarene University associate professor Duke Bulanon chats with orchard owner Mike Williamson about his crops. A pungent almond-like smell hits.

Williamson’s white peaches are still green, but some are slightly larger than a couple golf balls.

“When do you harvest?”

“Maybe the 24th or 29th (of August). Maybe you can come out and see how the applications would be useful.”

Williamson is referring to two projects Bulanon is developing at the Nampa school. One is the IdaBOT, which is a robot that can move on its own through vineyards and orchards.

The other is a multi-spectral camera, which captures multiple color wavelengths that would aid in counting fruit blossoms to estimate crop yield. The idea came to Bulanon when talking with Williamson in April during the blossom season. Bulanon flew a drone over the orchard and took near-infrared pictures of the blossoms, which showed up more clearly on the image than if a normal camera would take it.

By counting blossoms rather than more ripe fruit, yield can be estimated earlier.

“ ‘This could be a great tool for me if I can estimate my crop better,’ ” Williamson said. “Estimating crop is a very valuable management tool that vineyard and orchard managers use to predict what’s going to come out of that orchard and market better product.”

Bulanon hopes to make the camera small enough that it could be attached to a cellphone and work through an app. Bulanon and his team will find out how many pictures of blossoms and fruit need to be taken, and from what angles, to most accurately estimate yield.

Right now, Williamson and other workers count fruit on branches on certain trees and then multiply and average the count through the 24-acre orchard to estimate yield.

Bulanon’s background is in robot harvesting, some of which he did in Florida. He’s now an associate professor in physics and engineering at NNU.

“That’s why I like this camera,” Bulanon said with a smile. “Once we figure out the particular wavelength needed, we can go to a manufacturer to see if they can militarize the camera and make it easier to use for growers.”

Bulanon hopes to receive a grant for nearly $90,500 from the Idaho State Department of Agriculture. Bulanon’s project is one of 15 that are being considered to receive funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to promote specialty crop growth, according to a press release.

The money would cover the entire estimated cost of the project, according to Bulanon.

He plans to work with fellow professor John Stutz and a team of two engineering students to further develop the app. The students will be selected around October.

Money comes from a block grant that came about around 2006 in the Farm Bill legislation enacted under George W. Bush, according to Idaho State Department of Agriculture spokesman Eric Boyington. Legislators revisit the bill almost yearly to clarify crop and funding qualifications. This grant is expected to be available through 2020 and beyond.

Specialty crops, as defined in the legislation, include almost all fruits and vegetables, tree nuts and honey. Idaho’s specialty crops include potatoes, onions, wine grapes and peaches.

Williamson’s orchards and vineyards have been in the family for 107 years and have been maintained by several generations. Even now, Williamson’s children are helping with the crops, doing the same duties he did when he was their age.

Eighteen projects were submitted to the Idaho State Department of Agriculture. A panel of industry representatives with experience in agriculture and/or business management reviewed and scored all applications, providing input to the Idaho State Department of Agriculture for final selection.

The state’s estimated allocation is approximately $1.9 million for these projects.

Final approval by the U.S. Department of Agriculture is expected by the end of September, with funding expected to be available sometime in October or November, according to the press release.

Regardless of whether he receives the funding, Bulanon knows how valuable the project can be to the agriculture industry. Williamson said technology like this could save him up to 20 percent returns from materials, labor and more accurate crop yield for market.

“If the fruits are mature, it may already be too late for farmers to sell, or they may have to sell at lower price,” Bulanon said.

Williamson said most of the peaches will be exported to Asia, but some will be sold locally to fruit stands.

“He showed me those pictures of the blossoms (and how) the blossoms really stood out on the image and I thought, ‘Wow, this could be great,’ ” Williamson said.