Strawberries are becoming serious business at Cal Poly, where students and professors are working to develop hardier berries and improve growing technology — efforts they hope will result in better, cheaper fruit for consumers.
The products of their labor were on display this week, at the university’s first Strawberry Center Field Day. About 230 growers, researchers and industry representatives from around the state spent the day learning more about the program’s efforts to improve California’s multi-billion dollar strawberry industry.
“It’s the first time we’ve invited the whole industry out to see what we’re doing,” said Gerald Holmes, the center’s director.
The Strawberry Center is still fairly new — it was created in 2014 through a partnership with the California Strawberry Commission. Students work with berries planted over 3 acres, with 7 acres of fields set for additional cultivation.
On Thursday, Holmes showed off a field planted with 90 cultivated varieties of strawberries from six different breeding programs, including those from UC Davis, Driscoll’s and Lassen Canyon Nursery.
The berries were planted in 2016 in a field known to be infested with a disease that blocks the plants’ vascular tissues, cutting off nutrients and water. The different varieties were put through a series of trials to determine which ones were the most and least susceptible to the disease.
These kinds of trials will help researchers develop berries designed to better ward off such diseases, improving yields for consumers. “It allows them to have a continuous supply of high quality, low-cost strawberries,” Holmes said.
At the Strawberry Center’s other field, a group of engineering students and faculty demonstrated a robot known as the multi-sensor autonomous ground investigator.
The remote-controlled device — which looks like a big cart outfitted with a computer and solar-charged batteries — travels between rows of plants and uses a GoPro-like camera to capture images of berries in various stages of ripeness, said Bo Liu, an assistant professor of the BioResource and Agricultural Engineering.
A specially-created algorithm will then translate the images into data for growers, saving them effort and allowing them to better project their labor needs, saving money. That in turn could mean cheaper strawberries.
Students spent about a year building the device and hope to complete its programming by the end of the summer. Eventually, they plan to replace the human operator with pre-programmed coordinates.