Ontario company launches AI-based system to help automate fruit harvest

Croptracker traces fruit through the production process, but new image collection options can analyze fruit in bins for more efficient marketing and delivery

An Ontario software company is helping fruit and vegetable growers automate more of their labour-intensive harvest processes using artificial intelligence.

Croptracker has just unveiled its latest innovation — Harvest Quality Vision — at the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Convention in Niagara.

Why it matters: Many aspects of fruit and vegetable production still require manual labour, so automation has the potential to reduce a farm’s labour costs. For most, it’s the biggest share of their cost of production.

Harvest Quality Vision (HQV) captures images of harvested fruit in bins and, using artificial intelligence, analyses those images to quickly determine the size, colour and quantity of the fruit. Alerts are sent to growers or employees if it finds deviations from any acceptable standards.

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Not only does this eliminate the often time-consuming manual inspection of harvested fruit, but it also lets growers and field/orchard managers respond to quantity problems, quality defects or disease issues before the fruit is packed.

The goal, according to Marketing Co-ordinator Rachael Shaw, is more consistent harvest, higher quality produce and less manual labour.

HQV is the latest addition to the system, which can trace its roots back to the Ontario apple industry and growers wanting to be able to track crop protection applications in their orchards.

Apple Tracker, Fruit Tracker and Nursery Tracker were ultimately combined into Croptracker, which offers traceability, record-keeping, scheduling, employee communication and analytics, and reporting capabilities.

According to Shaw, it’s now available for all growers of all commodities in the fresh produce industry. Croptracker has service agreements with various grower organizations to provide the system to their members, including Norfolk Fruit Growers, Ontario Tender Fruit, Ontario Apple Growers, and Apple Growers of New Brunswick.

And they’ve just recently gone global.

CropTracker’s software is now also being used by New Zealand’s largest apple producer and exporter, Mr. Apple, following a successful pilot project last year. And they’ve recently signed a distributor agreement with a digital technology company in the region to lead their activities in Australia and New Zealand — two large fruit and vegetable producing nations.

“This was a very exciting development for us and working with a digital technology company gives us that foot in the door for further growth (in Oceania),” Shaw said.

Globally, over 2,400 growers are currently using Croptracker, with more than 59,000 fields mapped in the system.

Brian Rideout has used the system since its infancy on his family’s Manatree Fruit Farms near Blenheim, Ont. to manage crops from apples, peaches, pears and nectarines to tomatoes, squash and strawberries.

A need for faster, more accurate record-keeping first drew him to Croptracker, especially when it came to managing spraying pre-harvest and restricted re-entry intervals for his various crops.

“The worker safety aspect is so important. The farm is mapped so the people in the pack house know where pickers should and shouldn’t be picking,” Rideout said. “And the real-time record keeping makes management more efficient — if I’m in the field and I have the app, I can swing a crew to a different block because I can see we have some maturity issues, for example, and the pack house knows right away what the change has been.”

The level of traceability the system provides gives Rideout the entire life history of a basket of peaches from his farm, from when it was pruned and what it was sprayed with to when it was stored, trucked and sold. That’s information he needs to be able to provide under his CanadaGAP food safety certification, which most produce buyers now require.

“On our audit, when we could show what we were doing with Croptracker, the auditors were “wow” — they wanted to see the electronic record keeping and were surprised at how in-depth the program was able to follow (the produce),” he added. “Traceability is the biggest part of it — we’re feeding the nation and the world, not just our neighbours.”

According to Rideout, Croptracker founder and CEO Matt Deir is always willing to work with growers to add more value to the system and to learn how to better meet their needs. The next step, he believes, is working with Croptracker and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to help the system support audits that will be coming under the new Safe Food for Canadians Act.

Croptracker received federal government funding through ag tech accelerator Bioenterprise Corporation in Guelph to support development of its new HQV module, as well as a new offline mode for growers in limited or no digital coverage areas.

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