This past weekend a group of computer coders courted a group of farmers in Fresno County to create phone apps for their farms. Valley Public Radio’s Ezra David Romero reports.
If you’ve been on the popular dating application Tinder, then you’ve done this before. Swipe right for a potential date or swipe left to reject someone. But here at the first “Apps for Ag” hackathon at West Hills Community College in Coalinga, Tinder meets the world of invasive pests with a new app.
“We’re opening up SWARM and the screen asks have you seen beat leafhopper and I’ll press no I haven’t seen that today. So have you seen the navel orange worm? Yes, that’s a problem in almond trees.”
That’s Kyle Jorgensen. He’s a developer from Santa Barbara. He and the rest of his team met Eduardo Garcia, a crop advisor from Ventura at the event and took on the challenge to create SWARM, a phone application that alerts farmers what pests, like the citrus psyllid, could be in their fields.
“When you’re out there on a farm, on your own, you don’t always know what’s going on around you,” says Garcia. “So it’s what we’re trying to do is find out what else is going on around in our environment.”
The Apps for Ag hackathon is the first of many to be thrown by the United States Department of Agriculture with the goal of connecting farmers and techies to create efficient growing. Robert Tse with USDA Rural Development of California came up with the idea for the agricultural hackathon.
“The White House had issued sort of an order that all the federal departments should stage a hackathon and I took advantage of the opportunity and then we went forward with this ag hackathon,” Tse says.
The Tinder like app SWARM was just one of six created at the hackathon. The first night farmers wore green stickers and coders had to woo those farmers into choosing them to create an app for that grower’s particular issue.
Hanford crop advisor Justin Dutra has a problem. He wants to better manage nitrogen he’s applied to his almond orchards. Nitrogen is just one component of increasing crop yields, but in large amounts the element can contaminate the aquifer.
“The method I used to use was a lot of written notes per field how much we’ve applied,” Dutra says. “It’s just not a quick reference when you’re in the middle of a field and you’re wondering how much nitrogen you have on it. Well, you have to basically go to your truck, get your binder and flip through all the pages.”
Sandeep Giri and his developing team from San Francisco ended up winning over Dutra at the event.
“We literally turned to our right and were like you’re a guy with a green sticker,” Giri says. “It was love at first sight and so an hour had gone by and we were still talking so which, you know in a dating scenario that would be a good thing, which in this scenario was also good.”
Together Dutra and the coding team created the app NuTree Source in 24 hours. It takes existing data and new soil information input by the farmer into the app and then spits out a timeline of when and how much nitrogen the trees need.
Dutra says the hackathon opened his eyes to what coding can do for agriculture.
“That’s what makes me feel really cool," says Dutra. "I helped them come up with this. I can use this today in what I do and I think most people that I know would too.”
But Nutree Source didn’t win it all. The team came in third place only to be beaten by the tomato irrigation app Tomato2AT and the Tinder like app SWARM.
Eduardo Garcia, the crop advisor from Ventura, says the app created specifically for him at the hackathon has changed his perspective on farming.
“I will no longer need to wonder if these problems are local just to fields I consult or inspect myself," says Garcia. "I’ll be able to validate these findings by the results that my neighbors are posting as well.”
Garcia is just one example of how the USDA would like to bridge the gap between Silicon Valley and the San Joaquin Valley.