UF/IFAS research farm tests AI to ward off disease in Florida Panhandle crops

J. Scott Angle

Every year local peanut farmers brace for diseases that might wipe out their crop. Not just enemies they’ve fought off before, but new and emerging ones. They’re hard to see at first. Then, seemingly overnight, it’s an outbreak.

Plant pathologist Ian Small thinks he can deliver those farmers the vision to see it in time to intervene and protect a crop. Not only that, he hopes to help his plant breeder co-worker Barry Tillman to develop the ultimate preventative measure — a peanut plant that’s less likely to get sick in the first place.

The Panhandle’s coastal geography has long made it vulnerable to the introduction of new plant diseases, and its humid climate has given those diseases nearly ideal conditions to thrive. For many years, about the best a farmer could do to catch the early onset of disease was to walk the rows and look for yellowed leaves or wilted plants.

The PhenoGator, a UF-developed contraption being tested at the UF/IFAS Research and Education Center in Quincy, takes images along crop rows to quickly identify diseases and other concerns.

Innovation is Florida agriculture’s most important competitive advantage in a global market, and Small is heralding in a new era of technology on a University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) research farm in Quincy. Through the use of artificial intelligence (AI), he hopes to put machines to use to quickly scan entire fields to detect disease, tell farmers on which specific plants they find it, and eventually, maybe even treat it on the spot.

The reason this isn’t pie in the sky is that UF/IFAS recognizes AI as perhaps the most important innovation for agriculture in the coming decade. Over the summer UF announced an AI initiative that UF/IFAS hopes to tap into to address farmers’ challenges in the Panhandle and statewide.

At the UF/IFAS North Florida Research and Education Center (NFREC) in Quincy, AI comes in the form of a tractor with what looks like a domed tent dangling in front of it. Of course, it being a UF-developed contraption, it’s called the PhenoGator. It delivers 15 pairs of “eyes” to a scan of the field, and ones that work quickly — it can take in millions of images as it prowls the rows.

Plant pathologists like Small and Mathews Paret (who works on watermelon and tomatoes) can train a machine to look through all these images to look for a speck, a discoloration or some other subtle deviation and report its location. As they develop the technology, they can focus it on cotton, corn, roses and other crops as well. Small is already benefiting from the massive computational capacity of UF’s Gainesville-based HiPerGator, the most powerful university supercomputer in the South.

Knocking down disease makes agriculture in the Panhandle more resilient. That means livelihoods protected, jobs created as a larger and more consistent crop is produced, more tax revenue for local governments based on increased farmers’ profits.

Dr. Scott Angle

Of course, there’s also the local pride of knowing that peanut butter you spread on your kids’ sandwiches comes from Jackson or Escambia or Okaloosa county peanuts. The watermelon you serve at a summer barbecue has a greater chance of being from a local field. Even the clothes on your back could be Panhandle cotton.

UF/IFAS can do this because it has plant pathologists sharing office space with a plant breeder, entomologist, forage scientist and other experts in making things grow. It has the acreage to try out stuff like PhenoGator before rolling it out on a commercial farm. And it has the Extension agents who take the innovation developed by Small, Paret, and Tillman, David Wright, and other colleagues at NFREC and teach farmers how to use it.

Innovation like AI is what has kept Panhandle farmers in business against the odds.

AI’s early disease detection, automation of time-consuming tasks and eventually lowering production costs can help keep Panhandle farmers profitable instead of selling their land for the next subdivision.

AI can also protect the Panhandle’s environment. Instead of blanketing an entire field in fungicides or pesticides, AI can help predict where and when to spray, saving lots of chemicals from being used and lots of expense for farmers.

But there’s got to be a substantial investment in public science to get us there. We’ve always had great support from the state for our work in supporting Florida’s second-largest industry. We’ll need that support because AI doesn’t work without human intelligence — agricultural scientists like Small, Paret and Tillman — to put it to use on real-world problems.

Scott Angle is the University of Florida’s Vice President for Agriculture and Natural Resources and leader of the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS).