New and Improved

Our food system faces many challenges: waste, labor needs and safety concerns to name a few.

For Scott Shearer, chair of the Department of Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering at Ohio State University, evolving technology, specialized equipment and automation hold promise in addressing future food production needs.

“We sacrifice 40 percent of our food supply in terms of things that are actually grown and produced and never consumed,” Shearer notes.

Today, his department is researching everything from latex foams to microbial fuel cells. And it feeds the network of equipment manufacturers, electrical engineers, computer whizzes, bio-scientists and others who are helping farmers bring food to the table. Here’s how some bright minds are looking toward the future.

Are you smarter than your yogurt cup?

“As a person who looks at food as something that we should be much more careful about and not just throw away on a whim, smart packaging is an alternative in the form of some sort of indicator on the package that would mimic the quality of the product that is inside.”  ~Dennis Heldman, Ohio State University professor

Even though the food in your fridge is past its “use by” date, it could still be OK to eat.
According to Dennis Heldman, Ohio State professor of food science and technology, these dates are a “guess” based on shelf life tests that are not accurate for every package. Smart packaging is an innovation Heldman believes would lead to less waste.
Heldman explains these “smart” packages would provide a visual indicator on part of the label that would change color when the food is no longer good. The length of time food is safe to eat depends on many factors including temperatures during transport and storage. “Use by” dates do not take these environmental factors into account, but these active indicators would do just that.

“The most exciting thing as we look forward is that we are very quickly approaching sensors that could be placed in contact with the food product and environment around the product that could detect the existence of pathogens,” he said.

Put the berries to bed

“Blackberries are hardly grown at all in the continental United States on a large scale. So we are actually going into chain stores with a local Ohio product that wasn’t really available before.” ~Brett Rhoads, Pickaway County farmer

Brett Rhoads of Rhoads Farm Market in Pickaway County has become one of the largest blackberry producers in the Midwest, but the farm nearly quit growing the berries because of the significant damage it was seeing to its plants during Ohio’s winters. A collaboration with a company, Trellis Growing Systems, led to a solution.

“The trellis system enabled us to actually lay the plants down and let us bring these plants through the winter unscathed,” he said.

With the plants laid flat, they can be covered and protected from winter damage. This system also keeps the fruit growing on one side of the trellis, making the harvest easier and providing the fruit protection from the sun.

“It’s an insurance policy for us that we know that no matter what Mother Nature throws at us in the winter, our berries will be protected,” Rhoads said.

Protecting water: There’s an app for that

“People are obviously concerned about their water, as I am, so if I’m using this technology I’m using less chemicals. I won’t be over applying or using it where it isn’t needed.” ~Scott Carter, Marion County farmer

Many of us depend on GPS to get us from place to place, but farmers are using it to make sure they don’t stray out of line. And that can be good for the environment. Farmers now often have computers in their tractors that use GPS and other technologies to guide them very precisely, making them nearly autonomous.

These precision agriculture technologies can also do things like determine the exact amount of fertilizer needed in any specific location in the field instead of one blanket prescription that might be too much in some areas and not enough in others.
In fact, a new “intelligent” sprayer developed in part by engineers from Ohio State University can reduce pesticide use up to 73 percent in fruit crops. It uses a laser scanner to analyze individual tree characteristics and wipes out pests accordingly.

Robots let cows milk themselves

“We have two robot units that the cows can go into anytime of the day or night. The robot works a little bit like the assembly arms that you see in a car factory in Detroit.”
~Pam Hogue, Muskingum County farmer

Although we’re surrounded by technology, it still may come as a surprise that the milk in your morning coffee may have come from a cow milked by a robot. But that is what’s happening at the Hogue family’s dairy in Muskingum County.

After several generations of milking and a need for upgrades, Pam and Larry Hogue’s son, Alan, started researching robotic milking while attending Ohio State University Agricultural Technical Institute.

As the cows enter the barn, the computer reads each animal’s specialized tag and brings up the bovine’s back story, including how much milk it has been producing and the time since its last visit. Cows can go to the parlor to be milked whenever they feel the need, up to four to five times a day.

“When Alan first saw a robotic barn he said ‘No. Milking the cows is too important a job to give to robots,’ ” she said. “After he researched and started really looking at it, he kind of did a full circle and decided that milking cows is too important to be done by humans who get angry, have bad days or are inconsistent sometimes.”
With all of the benefits to the animals, the family also has seen benefits to its schedule.

“We were finally able to be at Christmas supper with the rest of my family at 5 p.m. this past year,” Hogue said.

Putting solutions (and people) to work
“Nearly every beef processing facility in the U.S. and around the world is using this product.” ~Paul Pirozzola, Bettcher Industries

A meal is often the end product of many farms and businesses coming together, creating a ripple effect throughout the economy. Just look at Bettcher Industries, employing nearly 200 people at its headquarters in Erie County.

The company designs tools and equipment to solve food processing problems around the world. One, in particular, stands out.

“When the BSE (Mad Cow Disease) scare happened, people were worried about where it came from,” said Paul Pirozzola, Bettcher Industries vice president of marketing, of the company’s Beef TrimVac tool, citing its impact on food safety in meat processing.
The tool was developed to safely and easily remove the part of the animal that would carry BSE if an animal was infected.

“The implications of this tool are huge,” Pirozzola said, noting how concerned consumers became when the rare disease was detected in the United States.