Implementation of Electronic Decision Support Technology for Apple Production
Agricultural production has evolved into a complex business requiring the accumulation and integration of knowledge and information from many diverse sources, including marketing, horticulture, management of insects, diseases and weeds, accounting and tax laws. Because high-quality information has not been easily accessible to growers when they are faced with important management decisions, decision-making on the farm has been surrounded by a high degree of uncertainty. To compensate, farm managers have increased inputs of chemical pesticides and fertilizers in an effort to minimize the variability in yield and quality that can occur from year to year. The price of this strategy, however, is reduction in potential profit and an increased threat to the environment because of the overuse of fertilizers and pesticides.
This project proposes to create a mechanism to incorporate electronic decision support technology (initially Expert Systems) into commercial apple production in the northeast. Expert Systems and associated electronic technology have considerable potential for low-input agricultural production in organizing and integrating information, knowledge and managerial skills necessary to profitably reduce purchased inputs.
The Penn State Orchard Consultant (PSOC) has been developed to help apple growers make better decisions about production and pest management. It has recently been made available for sale to fruit growers in Pennsylvania through Pennsylvania State Cooperative Extension. The system integrates various facets of apple production and gives the apple grower the information necessary to reduce some purchased inputs by substituting high-quality, integrated information derived from three sources: state-of-the-art apple production and IPM knowledge; site specific, farm-level data; and weather records. A primary emphasis of this system is to decrease the detrimental environmental impacts associated with pesticide and fertilizer use as well as input costs, thereby improving farm profitability and reducing economic risk.
A field-test and evaluation of the Expert System was conducted during eight months of the 1988 and 1989 growing seasons, using a pilot test group of twenty-six apple growers. During this time, the economic impact of the system on cooperators' operations and net income was estimated using an economic survey questionnaire, and the results of this study are still being analyzed.
This study has provided some preliminary evidence that changes in usual production practices occur as growers and users substitute information for purchased inputs, in this case, pesticides. It was also demonstrated that the substitution of information for inputs was stimulated by the Expert System, which enabled the grower or user to collect, integrate, and interpret the information rapidly. More work will need to be done at the first stage of the diffusion process if the Orchard Consultant is to become an effective tool for sustainable agriculture. Specifically, the diffusion agency must provide new educational programming for the growers on its application.
(1) Expand and modify field evaluation of Expert System technology in Pennsylvania.
(2) Analyze farm-level economic impacts.
(3) Develop modules and modify existing modules for New England and organic production; to be performed by the Universities of Vermont and Massachusetts and the Rodale Research Center.