• Subscribe

At Science Node, we need your help. We have ALMOST reached our fund-raising goal. In order to maintain our independence as a source of unbiased news and information, we don’t take money from big tech corporations. That’s why we’re asking our readers to help us raise the final $10,000 we need to meet our budget for the year. Donate now to Science Node's Gofundme campaign. Thank you!

Energizing agriculture

Speed read
  • Agricultural sensors measure soil conditions for large, industrial farms
  • Rural small farms are disadvantaged by lack of electricity and network connections
  • ASU student project tests solar sensors on remote Hawaii farm

With a growing global population, farmers are working hard to feed the world. Throw climate change into the mix and maintaining a thriving, high-yield farm becomes even harder.

Improving food security. SolarSPELL technology uses solar power to provide off-grid farmers with actionable information to increase  crop yields in the face of climate change. Courtesy Bruce Baikie.

Facing these challenges, it’s important for farmers to monitor soil for conditions such as temperature and moisture level in order to keep crops healthy. Agricultural sensors make it easy for farmers to take these measurements, but the sensors are usually attainable only for industrial farms that can afford the technology and can access electricity and a network connection.

Rural small farms don’t always have these luxuries, said Bruce Baikie, a senior sustainability fellow in the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability at Arizona State University.

<strong>Field test.</strong> ASU computer science students test their innovative systems of solar-powered soil sensors at MA’O Organic Farms on Oahu. Courtesy ASU.But the world can’t afford for small farms to fail. Family-run farms produce more than 80 percent of the world’s food, according to a 2014 report by the Food and Agriculture Organization. These farmers need a low-infrastructure, affordable way to keep up with changing conditions in their soils.

That’s where SolarSENSE, an ASU student capstone project sponsored by Baikie, comes in. SolarSENSE makes use of technology from SolarSPELL, Solar-Powered Educational Learning Libraries developed by Senior Sustainability Scientist Laura Hosman, to allow off-grid rural farms access to soil data from sensors without the need for electricity or costly internet connections.

The project, which started in September 2018 and currently involves five computer science seniors, is in its beginning stages. In early March, four of the students along with Baikie and Hosman traveled to Hawaii to test their innovative system on a remote farm — MA'O Organic Farms on the western side of Oahu (a connection arranged by Amanda Ellis, executive director of Hawaii and Asia Pacific in the ASU Wrigley Institute). Throughout their three-day proof-of-concept trip, the team also worked with the farmers to find out how SolarSENSE can take the data and present it in a way that is most useful.

In Hawaii, the team found that the technology worked, but they learned a lot about the product’s in-the-field application by interacting with the farmers.

<strong>Listening to farmers</strong> in the field led the students in new directions. “We had to throw out a lot of preconceived notions,” says project sponsor and ASU senior sustainability fellow Bruce Baikie. Courtesy ASU. “When we got into the field, we had to throw out the window a lot of preconceived notions we had and listen to the farmers,” Baikie said. “It helped point us in a new direction.”

Flame Porter, farm apprentice at MA'O Organic Farms, had positive feedback for SolarSENSE: "If we didn't care about our soil, we wouldn't be at this capacity. To be able to put (a sensor) in the soil and get results within that same day — it's revolutionary. It's going to help a lot of people.”

Ultimately, the goal of SolarSENSE is to not only improve accessibility to agricultural sensors for smaller farms, but also to connect the farmers to an agricultural library of recommended actions they could take based on the readings. The SolarSENSE digital agricultural library has both actional videos for farmers and a wealth of plant, soil and climate change information. The library is also accessed directly off the SolarSPELL unit — no internet connection required.

Kevin Hale, an ASU senior in software engineering who is part of the capstone team, said that they want the farmers to be able to “learn and share that knowledge with their community, so everyone can benefit.”

On a personal level, working with SolarSENSE has gone far beyond technology for Hale, who said that he learned a lot about sustainability and community through the Hawaiian farmers. One concept in particular that stuck with him was ahupua'a, the ancient Hawaiian system of land division to form self-sustaining ecosystems.

<strong>Encountering ahupua’a</strong>, the ancient Hawaiian system of land division to form self-sustaining ecosystems, helped the students understand the importance of looking for ways to help their community. Courtesy ASU.“The idea was that everyone helped each other get the resources that they need and that everyone supported each other locally,” Hale said. “I really enjoyed my time on the farm and seeing how the farmers too incorporated this mentality into their work. (I learned) that I need to not only worry about myself, but also look for ways that I can help sustain others in my community. Having these experiences … made me realize that I can have more impact on the world than I previously thought.”

The other ASU students involved in SolarSENSE for the fall 2018 and spring 2019 semesters are Tresor Cyubahiro, Wesley Davis, James Ortner and Scott Watkins. While in Hawaii, the team met with University of Hawaii President David Lassner to identify opportunities for collaboration between the two universities, and Hosman presented early findings about SolarSENSE testing at MA'O Organic Farms at a Sustainability Leaders Series event jointly sponsored by the ASU Wrigley Institute and the East-West Center.

Julie Ann Wrigley noted: “This is exactly the kind of practical impact I am proud our ASU Wrigley Institute sustainability scientists are able to make in the field. I am thrilled to see the wonderful work of SolarSPELL expanding and the meaningful connections with local indigenous Hawaiian enterprise MA’O as a follow on from our ASU Wrigley Institute board meeting held in Hawaii last November.”

Read more:

Read the original article on ASU's site.

Join the conversation

Do you have story ideas or something to contribute? Let us know!

Copyright © 2019 Science Node ™  |  Privacy Notice  |  Sitemap

Disclaimer: While Science Node ™ does its best to provide complete and up-to-date information, it does not warrant that the information is error-free and disclaims all liability with respect to results from the use of the information.

Republish

We encourage you to republish this article online and in print, it’s free under our creative commons attribution license, but please follow some simple guidelines:
  1. You have to credit our authors.
  2. You have to credit ScienceNode.org — where possible include our logo with a link back to the original article.
  3. You can simply run the first few lines of the article and then add: “Read the full article on ScienceNode.org” containing a link back to the original article.
  4. The easiest way to get the article on your site is to embed the code below.