Sonny Ramaswamy has never been accused of thinking small.
The former dean of Oregon State University’s College of Agricultural Sciences sees and speaks in big sweeps of ideas and possibilities. And now, in his third year as director of the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, he oversees a grant-dispensing agency that can make things happen.
In an interview with the Capital Press, Ramaswamy explained his particular interest in what he calls the “internet of agricultural things.”
Essentially, Ramaswamy sees the farm of the near future as a place where soil sensors, ground-based robots, overhead drones and plants themselves monitor crops, check conditions, collect data and even apply inputs. The information flows to a farmer’s hand-held device or among the machines themselves. A robot patrolling a crop might have the ability to recognize weeds and zap them with an onboard laser.
Data would follow food to the grain silo, grocery store and even the home refrigerator, all of which communicate among themselves and with the producer and consumer. The fridge, for example, might read the milk jug’s RFID tag and warn you when it has reached its pull date.
“It is the interconnection of all aspects of food and agricultural systems, from the farm all the way to the dinner table,” Ramaswamy said in a phone interview from his office in Washington, D.C.
He said the prospects for agriculture are “mind boggling.” A picture of a 20th century farm, he said, might be a Norman Rockwell scene of a farmer in bib overalls, rolling hills and a couple cows.
“Fast-forward to the 21st century,” he said. “You’ve still got a guy in bib overalls, but he’s got a hand-held device and he’s a data manager, is what is he is now. Oh, by the way, sensors are telling him how much nitrogen is in the soil, if insects are out there and if pollination is needed.”
His agency is backing the development of such technology.
In December, NIFA granted $3 million to four universities involved in various forms of robotics. Georgia Tech will develop robots that collect leaves and soil samples as part of integrated pest management systems. The University of Illinois will develop “cooperative networks” of human operators and mobile robotic platforms that work well on variable terrain and with interchangeable tools and crops. Carnegie Mellon will work on the safe integration of robotic equipment and human workers.
The biggest slice, $1 million, went to Washington State University to work on robotic bin management systems in fruit orchards.
“We are on the cusp of seeing incredible advancement in the use of robotics and sensors supporting agriculture in this country,” Ramaswamy said in a news release announcement of the grants.
Also in December, NIFA announced it’s making $15 million available for fellowships to train the next generation of agricultural researchers.
Earlier in 2014, NIFA granted $1.3 million for a University of Florida researcher’s continued development of a monitor that detects fruit rot diseases in strawberry plants and alerts growers when to spray. Previously, growers sprayed once a week from November to March as a preventative; the technology allows them to spray only when conditions warrant.
Ramaswamy said some of the most unusual work funded by NIFA is at Colorado State University, which is developing genetically engineered “sentinel” plants that can detect pathogens and turn color to alert producers.
Colorado State’s description of the research says it is a new technology, with “plants serving as detectors for agriculture.” The work allows the public to “see GMO applications other than those focused on foods.”
Oregon State has been on the receiving end of NIFA grants as well, including a $4 million grant in 2010 to prevent childhood obesity in rural Oregon and a $2.9 million grant in 2014 to manage nursery plant diseases.
Dan Arp, the current dean of OSU’s College of Agricultural Sciences, said Ramaswamy – a friend – has opened more NIFA grants to competitive applications.
“That’s always a benefit for us,” he said. “Studies have shown our scientists are very effective at competing for grants. As long as the process is open, our scientists do well.”
Ramaswamy, who was picked for the NIFA job in 2012, said he misses Oregon but is having fun and is excited about agriculture’s prospects.
“Yet I lament that this incredible enterprise — we don’t tell our stories,” he said. “We’re still not able to connect back to the average person on the street.”