Blueberries: New technology enables real-time monitoring to determine the quality of the coveted Chilean fruit

The cultivation of blueberries is in fashion and is required by countless consumers around the world. This has prompted the incorporation of technology in the fields, such as spectrometry optics, to permanently measure the state of this fruit in situ to find out the optimum harvest time. And although the truckers' strike threatened logistics processes just at the start of the new season, this industry is resilient and will continue to improve all its processes.

There is no doubt that Chile is one of the countries that has a prestigious international reputation in terms of its agricultural production and exports.. Fresh fruit is our star, because according to the latest report from the Office of Agricultural Studies and Policies (Odepa), leads forestry and agricultural exports, representing 33 percent of the total, followed by pulp (16%), wood (15%), wines, and meats (both 8%).

Over the years, the careful work carried out on the land dedicated to the cultivation of fresh fruit has managed to position us in countries where consumer demands are increasingly high and sophisticated, increasing the demands both in the quality of the fruit, as well as in the production process is ecologically responsible and traceable.

This international recognition, however, It has been threatened right at the beginning of the harvest, selection, cooling and shipping season due to the blockade of routes en the context of the truckers' strike which was resolved on the night of Monday the 28th. "Today the refrigerators are full, with no possibility of storing more fruit and, therefore, the industry does not have the cargo capacity for ships, as well as the way to reach them ”, they warned from the Association of Fruit Exporters of Chile (Asoex).

State-of-the-art technology for traceability

However, the serious damages caused by the blocking of routes, the national fruit industry is resilient and is undergoing a process of sophistication in all its links to further improve the quality standard from the plantations, finding an important ally in technology.

A new method is the use of the spectrometry optics to avoid performing conventional laboratory procedures, which involve destructive techniques of the fruit and take time to deliver a result.

According to Paula Vargas, agronomist engineer, researcher at the Institute of Agricultural Research (INIA) and student of the Master in Data Science from San Sebastián University (USS), “the insertion of technology is increasingly accessible in terms of investment and seems to be the answer to the challenges of the fruit export sector".

Develop and implement new technological tools contribute to promoting the development of sustainable and more productive agriculture, since it helps not only to diagnose and understand crops from the interaction of the plant with the environment, but also to cushion environmental damage, adjusting both fertilization and efficient water use measures.

Thermal cameras, spectroradiometers, RGB to diagnose crop symptoms, satellite images that work as a scanner that allows to see where the problem is and guide the producer to attend to the ailment of his field, are just some innovations in the field.

In this regard, Paula Vargas comments that “technology allows us to see precisely the needs of the crop; we can diagnose the soil fertility and the state of the plant to generate reports automatically that reach the producer's phone so you can see what steps to take correctly and early. That is to say, today it is possible to evaluate in advance which plants to put and which not in certain places, making the investment, the use of soil and water efficient”.

This can be done without using more resources, nor does it affect the utility of the producers, since Technological implements are increasingly accessible. “This is all very relevant. Without going any further, if there is no update, the punishment of international markets can be up to 40 percent compared to other more technical countries”, emphasizes the agronomist.

The attractiveness and care of blueberries

The production of blueberries became a commercial attraction for export and its demand internationally, which is giving rise to new competitors, forcing Chilean producers to intervene quickly and innovatively with the help of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) applied to the digital agriculture, which allow the country to maintain its leadership as a blueberry exporter in the southern hemisphere.

In the field of blueberries is where Paula Vargas has specialized for the last four years and in which he has developed his thesis in the last year and a half. The USS specialist explains that “the traditional methods used in Chile to make yield estimates are erratic, reaching a high variability (±50%), because it is done through a periodic count of the performance parameters, which, due to a matter of time and availability of resources, does not manage to be an "n" sample that allows considering the existing spatial variability in the field, encompassing all factors that affect the soil-plant-water-climate relationship, resulting in an uncertain quantity of fruit and of unknown quality".

From this, together with INIA and Hortifrut SA, have tried to provide solutions not only to the company, but also to the entire production chain, investigating non-destructive monitoring systems through spectrometry and technological optics (OST-SMART) for the control and management of the spatial variability of production and quality in blueberries.

The USS researcher details that with the incorporation of this technology they wanted evaluate the optimal point of harvest and the fruit without the need to destroy them and, thus, have a large number of samples that are representative of the marketing destination.

In fact, this system has the ability to track from day one, when the fruit begins to gain color inside the tree, until you know the exact time of harvest. On the other hand, it is possible to evaluate a large number of samples in a limited space of time, which is a key indicator, because when they arrive at their destination, either Asia or Europe, discards are made due to overripeness or because they damage other fruits. Thus, blueberry traceability is much more precise, efficient and representative than just a couple of years ago.

Given the benefits that the use of technological tools in the cultivation of blueberries brings, the country faces enormous challenges in a transversal way. The key points for accelerating the growth of the country will depend on innovation and technological development as sources of growth in productivity and competitivenessat the business and national level. This requires the collaborative work of different entities, both public and private, universities and large companies.

The challenges of the academy

Regarding the challenges that agriculture imposes on academia, Paula Vargas explains that “Updating the curricula of the universities seems essential to me, because it already happens to us that from the agricultural world many past generations are already obsolete in their use of technology. Today, Agriculture is a multidisciplinary job where environmental engineers, software development companies, sociologists, among many others, are an essential part of the job. This makes it possible to expand to other careers and generate new sources of work”.

On the other hand, in order to achieve the international demand that is required today, it is necessary not only for the user to adapt to the technologies, often reticent to changes, if not, from government and business policies, to expand investments in technology for the empowerment and efficient use of resources.

"Today, for example, We are investigating at the INIA about pests and diseases, to identify the pest and not use pesticides or to avoid them as much as possible. This anticipates, the nappa is taken care of, the greenhouse effect is avoided, among other things”, concludes Vargas.

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