Rural Arizona Greenhouse Uses Artificial Intelligence To Grow Tomatoes

By Casey Kuhn
Published: Tuesday, August 29, 2017 - 8:52am
Updated: Tuesday, August 29, 2017 - 5:45pm

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A huge greenhouse facility north of Willcox is growing tomatoes. But they're not using traditional methods to produce the crops: they're using artificial intelligence. This kind of high-tech farming will grow our future food.

Walking into tomato company NatureSweet's greenhouse is like walking into Willy Wonka's chocolate factory. The long hall between the growhouses bustles with workers moving tomatoes and shouting directions. 

The general manager, Gustavo Vera, shows off the rows of tomato plants growing up and suspended on hooks. They're heavy with nearly-ripe, green tomatoes. Vera explains how the eight-week process to get them to this point is done very carefully.

"Growing tomatoes is an art," he said. "So the grower needs to balance out several conditions at the same time."

Conditions like humidity, temperature, irrigation, pest control, etc.

This is one of the 16 greenhouses on-site, which NatureSweet took over a few years ago.

They've changed the operation, and now they're trying out a technology you wouldn't expect to see in rural Arizona – artificial intelligence.

"This is going to revolutionize the industry, I believe," Vera said. "Because what was an art, now has a data backup."

Back in his office, Vera looks at a dashboard on his computer collecting data sent from the newly-installed cameras in the greenhouse.

"And this tells us, out of the houses you have, which ones do have control over operations," he said, pointing to the half dozen houses that are up and running with the artificial intelligence technology.

He points to different charts and numbers that are constantly changing. It looks like the flight deck of a science fiction space ship.

But rather than star cluster maps, we're looking at an overhead shot of the tomato growhouse we were just in. Instead of plants, they're little dots in rows and rows. Vera clicks on a data layer and a few of the dots turn red.

Those red dots mean the plants have pests. They're exact pinpoints that show growers where to find the problem crops.

It's this type of data collection over time that becomes the "artificial intelligence."

Big Data Is The Future Of Big Ag

Agriculture technology specialist Robyn Lawson said it's not the kind of AI that can take over the world,

"Aritifical intelligence has such this negative connotation, I immediately think of all those sci-fi movies from Hollywood, and that's not what's happening," she said.

Lawson said it's large scale data analytics that farmers are using nowadays as the labor availability becomes more limited and expensive.

Growers now have access to robot sensors, aerial imagery and hundreds of apps to help manage their fields.

Lawson said cutting-edge technology and agriculture have always gone hand-in-hand, but now it's developing at a rapid pace.

(Photo by Casey Kuhn - KJZZ)
Irrigation technologist Juan Mosqueda shows how he can input crop data on an app.

"It's almost over-saturated data," she siad. "There are sometimes where growers are like, this is too much, I don't even know how to put this together to make decisions."

That's where the central data system in Willcox comes in.

The countless data that workers, like irrigation technologist Juan Mosqueda, collect comes through a central app all the specialists have on their phones.

"So now, the only thing is I have to show you," Mosqueda said. "And if it doesn't come up on this one I can show you on this one."

The only problem is, the WiFi connection isn't good in this giant greenhouse – the app is slow to start up. But, Mosqueda can still input data – once he reaches a working signal, it goes through.

It's still an upgrade from the pen and paper he's always used.

"We don't have to carry any other papers anymore, all the information is all in the same place, it gives us some nice graphs when we go to it," Mosqueda said.

And, as farming technology keeps getting smarter, tech specialist Lawson said there may be a point where the plant itself could tell a grower, from a sensor in the seed, that it needs more water.

"I think in the very near future, we're going to have sensors on each plant. In my lifetime, I think we'll start to see that," Lawson said.

It might be a while before that happens, but there's no doubt the future of farming is going digital.

(Photo by Casey Kuhn - KJZZ)
NatureSweet grows tomatoes using cocoa peat.
(Photo by Casey Kuhn - KJZZ)
A worker prunes at NatureSweet Willcox location.
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