Table grapes are an important crop for farmers in the South Italian Regions of Puglia and Basilicata where this use case carries out its main activities. However, the implications of its innovation reach far beyond those regions as they set out to revolutionise organic production and packaging of fruits and vegetables in Europe and beyond. One success factor is certainly the way each crucial segment is embedded in a holistic system that overarches the entire value chain of organic table grapes. This also manifests on a personal level. When Vincenzo Verrastro, the Use Case Coordinator, describes the work and research they are performing he always refers to the team as a community, a family. Let us now explain each technological segment this family - comprised of farmers, end-users, researchers and processors - thrives upon.
High quality standards at farm-level
IoT technology relieves many difficulties faced during the production of organic table grapes. Since they are delicate fruits, this potentially offers solutions to the challenges in other value chains as well.
Table grapes have a short shelf-life, can be easily damaged in the different steps of the supply chain, and they are very vulnerable to pests. Hence, controlling and monitoring certain influencing factors with the help of technology is of utmost importance, especially in open-field agriculture. After all, this use case’s testing site is among the largest organic table grapes farms in Europe, encompassing 80ha and 20 different varieties. However, for Toni, the owner, quantity and numbers are secondary. His focus is on quality which requires daily dedication and effort. Not only from him, but from everyone in his community of 130 employees. It comes as no surprise that their organic table grapes are in high demand and have been awarded for unique quality standards before. Standards are indeed very important since all the varieties are under royalty and follow strict pre-set rules along every step of the value chain. And organic supermarkets all over Europe are eager to put such pristine grapes on their shelves.
Naturally, for farmers and end-users, dedicating their lives to organic table grapes or other fruits and vegetables, technologies that improve the production at farm-level are more than welcome. This is where IoT comes into play in terms of optimising the production process. And with process, we mean the entire life cycle of a product, from farm to fork.
From cutting-edge technology to traditional techniques
At farm level, the team relies on weather stations and sensors, measuring soil moisture and temperature, electrical conductivity or atmospheric pressure.
All gathered data are centralized in a Decision Support System (DSS) developed by BluLeaf. The innovation, however, is to combine the key parameters from various locations with different environmental conditions within in one farm management system. But let us not put the cart before the horse and focus on each of those aspects and their particular contribution to the entire system.
Each weather station is strategically placed - in the open field or in the middle of the grape parcels – and used as a reference system to learn more about key parameters at a specific location. This placement, which resembles a neural network, helps to get data from different locations with varying environmental conditions, the open field without any vegetation for instance. When moving under the covers or canopies of the parcels, which accelerate the maturation of the table grapes while protecting them from adverse weather effects, we find further smart solutions European agriculture relies on.
Fertiliser user per kg grapes per year
Pesticide use per kg grapes per year
We encounter another weather station in the middle of the grapes alongside an atmometer, recording atmospheric pressure, as well as a sensor inside the trunk of a grape tree. The latter is one major innovation of this use case because the development of the crop from a physiological point of view was previously a blind spot as most monitored parameters just record one certain point in time. To move from a static to the current dynamic system, the team inserted this device into the trunk to record the movements of nutrients inside the plant. Each of those neural nodes transmit data, using a SigFox network architecture to centralise and synthesise all information in the DSS. This is where the entire agricultural system of Toni’s farm comes together to provide added value and crucial insights into his practices. The neural communication of all sensors, gathering dynamic and punctual data, tells the farmer how each treatment performed and every decision made affect the physiological state of the crop over time. Through this module scheme, even differences between each 2 ha parcel of grapes can be calculated to further improve the machine learning. Nevertheless, to fight certain pests such as the mealy bug, the team also resorts to traditional techniques to avoid the unnecessary application of agrochemicals such as pesticides, fungicides or plant protection products. Thus, they wrap glass wool around the affected branches to prevent the bugs from spreading.
Irrigation as a key factor of the farm management system
Even though the instruments record, monitor or control several important parameters, the key factor remains water due to the short life cycle of the crop.
On Toni’s farm, the water source for irrigation are wells that are about 70 to 100 m deep and fill a big reservoir to ensure the continuous supply of this crucial resource. The water consumption varies greatly, depending on which irrigation technique is applied and the specific needs of the variety. For one parcel of 2 ha it can range from 2000 l to 6000 l per season, emphasising the importance of resource use efficiency.
Irrigation costs per year
And likewise, when we talked to Toni and his community, they confirmed that the biggest relief and innovation with the greatest impact is the remotely controllable irrigation. They all stressed the word remotely as being the game changer since irrigation was already done automatically before. But now it can be tailored to the individual needs of each parcel and the grape variety therein at any given time. Since every parcel is considered a single module in the entire agricultural system, every decision made and treatment carried out caters to the individual needs of the crop. The optimal irrigation is adjusted and controlled by the farmer itself, but the decision support stems from the analysis of the physiological state, nutrition consumption and all sensor data centralised in BluLeaf’s application. Additionally, the farmer gets a dynamic feedback on the effect each decision had on the plant and how it developed over time. And with each year, the machine learning helps to give more accurate recommendations. Increasing the number of physiological data sensors, inserted into the trunk of the grapes, would further improve this machine learning, but a balance between financial constraints and required measuring points must be struck on every farm, regardless of size.
Labour hours per kg grapes per year
The system is now running for 4 years and did not only make Toni’s life significantly easier; the same methodology and setup have also been transferred to citrus fruits on the very same farm. This applicability in other sectors enlarges the feeling of community, enshrined in this use case, to other sectors. A community which, according to Vincenzo Verrastro, would capitalise from IoT technology and thrive even more in the future if data, information and knowledge gathered at field level are communicated and shared with each other. And every contribution to such an agricultural community or network matters, from a small olive farm to one of the biggest organic table grapes farms in Europe, where we are currently witnessing the harvesting process. The best harvesting time depends on colour, sugar content as well as maturity of the grapes and obviously the looks, which is still one of the most important factors for the consumer. Furthermore, the pace of certain strains also depends on genetics. Some table grapes simply need more time for maturation than others. Here the DSS also helps the farmer to determine the optimal equilibrium.
Post-harvest treatment of the produce
Once the organic table grapes are harvested, we follow them on their journey where constant refrigeration is a crucial factor to ensure a shelf-life of about 2 weeks.
While we depart with most of them which travel along the value chain on to a packaging plant, a sample of 70kg departs on an innovative journey. This amount is necessary to run the tests that Prof. Di Renzo and his team at University of Basilicata are carrying out in the city of Potenza. Their research department includes a laboratory for packaging to investigate other crucial factors in the post-harvest period in terms of shelf-life prolongation of fruits and vegetables. And here, modified atmospheric packaging (MAP) plays an important role. It is the key factor to extend the shelf-life in organic production since it does not rely on any chemicals for this purpose. The research team only leverages the characteristics of natural gases present in the atmosphere such as carbon dioxide, nitrogen or oxygen. But there is more to that, so let us dive into the details of their research.
When the refrigerated grapes arrive at the laboratory, Prof. Di Renzo and his team select a random sample which is first visually examined for any decaying berries. Those must be removed to ensure the test results are not distorted by already perished grapes. After this, the grapes are treated with a high level of CO2 for 24 hours to remove any influencing factors such as unwanted microorganisms; an organic disinfection of sorts. This ensures not only valid results but also their comparability as it enables the repetition and incremental improvement of the process that is going to be carried out over the next 90 days. Different concentrations of natural gases mitigate the proliferation of microorganisms and reduce the metabolism of the fruit inside the package. That CO2, nitrogen or oxygen have this effect is nothing new, but to leverage it on a commercial scale is the truly innovative part of the post-harvest part of this use case. Hence, the product is sealed with a modified atmosphere as a last step before long-term, refrigerated storage.
Research with a global impact
In the very beginning, we mentioned that this use case is about to revolutionise production as well as packaging of organic fruits and vegetables globally. This is where the patented Blow device comes into play.
The bio plastic film, sealing the package with the table grapes, includes this device which only has a thickness of 0,7 mm in its third version. This detail is crucial for the automation on a commercial level since the Blow device is welded into the extremely thin packaging film. The first prototype had a thickness of 1,2 mm and thanks to the reduction to 0,7 mm the automation on a commercial level is becoming reality as machines can now process up to 100 packages per minute. Even though this device only has the diameter of a finger, its effects on the post-harvest treatment of fruits and vegetables is immense as it prolongs the shelf-life of, for instance, organic tables grapes from 14 to up to 70 days. The device does that through microincisions from a 3D printer that allow the exchange of gases between the inside and outside of the package. Fruits and vegetables continue their respiratory transpiration and produce CO2 which leads to decreasing oxygen levels and results in quality loss. By taking advantage of these natural processes, the device reduces the growth of pathogens.
Every 10 days a random sample is selected and examined for the occurring change by cross-referencing initial tests carried out upon arrival of the grapes in the laboratory. And with every test the team gets closer to the perfect concentration of natural gases to maintain the crispness, taste and look of tables grapes in long-term storage. The objective of Prof. Di Renzo and his dedicated team is to develop a post-harvest protocol based on the Blow device and modified atmospheric packaging. If producers and processors follow those guidelines, the shelf-life of delicate fruits can be extended significantly and thus food waste will be reduced. Furthermore, it will alleviate the pressure on logistics because freshness can be maintained a longer time. This will have global implications on storage and packaging because it can be applied to any perishable product from berries to fresh cut salad, citrus fruits and even cheese. However, every product has its peculiarity and requires extensive research in the future, which this use case considers their next objective.
Achievements, products & services
Detailed information on the major critical points: irrigation, crop and pest management, post-harvest
Web-based platforms, analysing all the collected data for crop improved management decision-making
Integration and validation of the data acquired by Netsens proprietary IoT technology and analysis through the IoT/VDL solution into Bluleaf DSS, in order to have a backup network to cover possible data loss of the actual commercial sensing solution
Deployment of the first official VDL (Virtual Data Logger) version: VDL implemented in two cross-platform apps (for desktop and mobile clients) to visualise and analyse the data acquired by the IoT sensors
IoT sensors to monitor and control table grapes in fields
Deployment of the framework for data exchange and third party data integration