University of Florida Extension Institute for Agricultural and Food Sciences Receives $2,7 Million for Technology Upgrades

LAKE COUNTY, Fla. — More than $2 million in funding will bring artificial intelligence software to University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences offices across the state, including Central Florida.

UF/IFAS recently received $2,7 million in funding to upgrade technology at its extension offices in all 67 counties in the state. They offer agricultural classes, events and training to the public, and extension agents also use research and data to find efficient agricultural practices and solutions to share with local producers.

The new technology upgrades will incorporate business intelligence software into each county extension offices.

“The technology will use artificial intelligence (AI) to collect, store and analyze data produced by extension agents and programs,” UF/IFAS said.

The grant for the technology upgrades comes from the office of University of Florida President Ben Sasse through funding the university received from the Florida Legislature this year.

Christian Christensen, director of the Hastings Extension Agricultural Extension and Business Intelligence Center, said the technology upgrades will allow extension agents to provide faster solutions and research to local producers.

“One of the biggest assets that will come from this initiative is that our teachers and county agents will have real-time mobile access to critical data they need to implement adoptable solutions for our stakeholders and our ranchers.” Christensen said.

In Central Florida, Matt Smith is the food systems and cash crop production extension agent for Lake and Orange counties. He said one of the ways AI can be used in agriculture is by predicting when crops are ready to be harvested.

“Using year-round field data, combined with climate models, UF/IFAS is trying to predict the best time to harvest crops throughout the state of Florida,” he said.

Smith said harvest is one of the most expensive times of year for growers due to labor, so accurately predicting harvests can help reduce costs.

One of the growers Smith works with in Lake County is Ryan Atwood, one of the owners of H&A Farms, an independent farm in Mount Dora that grows more than 10 million blueberries each year and is home to the largest packinghouse in Florida. .

Atwood said she is starting to use AI to help predict when her blueberries will be ready to pick. With the projections, he said he will have a better knowledge of when he will need to hire labor and how much fruit he can provide to marketers.

"The better you can do to provide good, accurate projections, the better the marketing and sales of the fruit will be," Atwood said. “It helps your work situation, with when you bring them in and how many you have and all that. Basically, it optimizes the productivity and efficiency of your operation.”

Overall, both Atwood and Smith said AI can help optimize harvesting.

As the blueberry picking season begins in Florida, Atwood said he expects a busy season and is hopeful for what AI predictive models and technology can bring to the business in the future.

"It's a win all the way around," Atwood said. “You are going to save your own work. You will be more efficient with the labor you hire to help you and you will increase the value of your harvest.”

Smith said he hopes to continue working with producers like Atwood and make technology upgrades to provide more solutions to producers.

“Anything we can do as a university to help them achieve their goals, be more efficient and produce better fruit will only be better for Florida farmers and I really think Florida in general,” Smith said.

UF/IFAS said the Extension office's technology upgrades and extension programs “could lead to optimized agricultural yields, improved agricultural practices and increased economic returns for farmers and ranchers.”

To find your local UF/IFAS Extension office and its services, visit the institute's state map.

As blueberry picking season begins, H&A Farms is offering two “U-Pick” locations at its Amber Brooke Farms in Eustis and Williston. This Saturday also begins the Blueberry Festival of the farms.

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