Phase II

Implementing Low-Cost Wireless Sensor Networks for Irrigation, Nutrient Management and Frost Protection of Strawberry


Contact: John Lea-Cox, 301-405-4323, jlc@umd.eduLea-Cox phase 2 photo 1

Leadership Team:

  • John Lea-Cox, University of Maryland, Department of Plant Science and Landscape Architecture
  • Erick Lichtenberg, University of Maryland, Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics
  • John Majsztrik, University of Maryland, Department of Plant Science and Landscape Architecture
  • Bruk Belayneh, Department of Plant Science and Landscape Architecture

Project Collaborators:

  • Robert Rouse, Agriculturalist, LLC, Denton, MD
  • Russ Shlagel, Shlagel Farms, Waldorf, MD
  • Ben Butler, Butler's Orchard, Germantown, MD

Project Summary

Irrigation water scarcity is a serious problem affecting the major strawberry production regions of the U.S. In addition, restrictions limit the amount of chemicals (fertilizers, fungicides, and pesticides) that can leach from or run off strawberry farms in the mid-Atlantic. The main objective of this project was to install wireless sensor networks (WSNs) to implement ultra-precision irrigation and nutrient management on commercial strawberry farms and so address sustainability goals for conserving and preserving water resources and reducing chemical inputs for fertilization. The WSNs were deployed on two commercial strawberry farms representing two production systems: matted row (Butler’s Orchard in Germantown, Maryland) and plasticulture (Shlagel Farm in Waldorf, Maryland). The project documented costs and benefits associated with the WSNs at the two commercial farms and compared them to current grower practices. Changes in input costs, labor savings, and productivity were used to calculate return on investment of the WSN technology to determine the potential for economically sustainable strawberry production.

The objectives of this project were to quantify the effects of sensor networks on water use, crop growth, and fruit quality on commercial strawberry farms; to study the effects of decreased irrigation regimes; to investigate the potential of sensor networks to provide site-specific frost alerts to farmers; and to quantify the economic impact of using sensor networks for irrigation, nutrient management, and frost protection.

Lea-Cox phase 2 photo 2Project Outputs and Impacts

The project found that sensor networks were able to improve the profitability of strawberry operations by reducing management time and optimizing irrigation input to production output. An in-depth economic analysis of the return-on-investment showed that sensor-controlled irrigation can be successfully implemented for strawberry production with reasonable returns on investment, even when above-average rainfall is received. Data analysis also revealed how minor adjustments in irrigation can greatly impact crop quality, emphasizing the importance of adequate irrigation during flowering and fruit set. The integration of frost sensors allowed for canopy temperature management as well, informing growers when to place and remove row covers during the winter and spring and sending text alerts to growers to warn of frost events. These frost sensors also reduced the cost of operation by eliminating the need for farmers to manually monitor temperatures and allowing the growers to make precise decisions based on real-time information to avoid unnecessary applications of water for frost protection.

Information was shared with stakeholders through a strawberry field day for local farmers, a summer tour organized for the North American Strawberry Growers Association (NASGA), and visits to national program managers and congressional members and their staffs. Results from the project were presented at national and international conferences to growers, industry personnel, students and researchers across the United States (ASHS Annual Conference, New Orleans) and from around the world (ISHS VIII Irrigation Symposium, Lleida, Spain).