1.5x the watermelon for no extra cost!

I recall this story from the schoolyard many years ago about grandpa Joe, and his grandson, George. They were walking along the footpath and young George, oh the terrible 7 year old he is, steps in a rather titanic-sized portion of processed dog food. He could feels his heart sinking at the aroma of the smelly dog detritus embedded in his shoe, thus beginning  a tirade of complaints at why their lovely walk had been ruined by him stepping in dog poo. Well Joe, the wise and reasoned man he is, stops and imparts a piece of wisdom on George:

Never let the seeds of life stop you from enjoying the watermelon”

On that note, a clever geneticist somewhere thought – “but what if we never had to deal with the seeds of life in our watermelon?” And so seedless watermelons were born – George and Joe continued their walk and had a lovely day.

The concept of a seedless fruit is incredibly paradoxical. The entire reason for fruit existing is to spread and propagate genes in various and delightful methods. As a result, plants are not very adept at growing seedless fruit. It’s equivalent to tying the shoelace after taking your shoe off, building a table to throw out or buying seedless fruit to grow a fruit tree. But seedless watermelons are fantastic for those of us less inclined to enjoy a seedy mouth.

The whole process is based in genetics. Humans, like watermelons are diploid creatures – that is we both have two sets of chromosomes. However a seedless watermelon is triploid (or has three sets). Having three sets of chromosomes renders the progeny sterile and hence no seeds. Sounds pretty straightforward right?

Sort of.

Your typical watermelon seedling carrying two sets of chromosomes is treated with a natural compound called colchicine, derived from Meadow Saffron. The compound is incredibly toxic (to plants and in high doses to humans, low doses actually treat gout in place of NSAIDs) and interrupts cell division in such a way that some new cells become tetraploid. That is they have four sets of chromosomes. Those seedlings are then grown up and the progeny selected for favourable traits – such as watermelon producing, non toxic etc.

The tetraploid plants are grown out to flower stage. The male flowers are removed and the female flowers, which produce triploid fruit, are retained. The triploid fruit with triploid seeds contained within are then harvested. The triploid seed stock, when grown out to flower stage, lack adequate pollen production for triploid-triploid pollinisation. So by planting a few diploid plants in there with the triploid plants, the triploid plant is pollinated with diploid genes.

Whilst diploid pollen will stimulate fruit development, because the numbers of genes are different, the diploid and triploid genes are not compatible, and hence the fruit fails to produce seeds. And there you have it seedless watermelons! For more detailed information on the topic and some stats about different varieties check out Purdue’s horticulture page.

Watermelon.jpg

Chemical manipulation is just one method of genetic modification in a traditional sense. There are many different types of chemical mutagens (things that mess around with genes) out there used commercially. Some even have a huge radioactive source raised and lowered to mutate seeds and then see what happens! Pretty neat stuff.

So when you eat those seedless watermelons you’re pretty much getting some more genes for free. What a bargain.

Guy

Agriculture reaching new heights

The original meaning of drone, that of a male honey bee who exists for the procreation and elongation of the queen’s lineage, interestingly enough stems from Old English. Adoption of the word drone as a synonym for Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) is based in an amusing story from 1935, featuring US Admiral William H. Standley:

“Standley saw a British demonstration of the Royal Navy’s new remote-control aircraft for target practice, the DH 82B Queen Bee. Back stateside, Standley charged Commander Delmer Fahrney with developing something similar for the Navy. “Fahrney adopted the name ‘drone’ to refer to these aircraft in homage to the Queen Bee,” Mr. Zaloga wrote.” WSJ

Anyway, enough of the entomologous etymology, here are some fantastic videos made possible with quadcopters. I’ll give you a run down on how it’s all related to agriculture after you’re done feasting on these incredible videos.

The recent sky-high popularity of drones has resulted in some incredible photography and videography opportunities of Australian landscapes like this one from The Great Ocean Road:

Or the sci-fi, straight outta the future drone racing with similarities to Star Wars space battles:

Or one of my favourites – drones and fireworks…

Like peas and carrots…peas and carrots.

Drones have created a number of political and policy issues, with Australia only set to update laws made in 1998 in September this year. A slightly different take, with a more Republican basis:

http://imgs.xkcd.com/comics/microdrones.png

 

So how does agriculture fit into this I hear you say? Well, drones offer farmers an ideal platform to very rapidly monitor paddocks implementing a range of different cameras . And what benefits can farmers get out of this?

Aside from a fantastic way to justify spending farm money on incredibly fun pieces of equipment, drones are revolutionising crop and livestock management in three key areas (number 3 will surprise you!).

  1. Crop monitoring – using various thermal (measuring temperature), multispectral (the camera can detect multiple wavelengths of light e.g. infrared, red, green, blue, UV) and hyperspectral (imaging cutting the pie of useable wavelengths into hair-width size pieces – very data intensive but great for disease detection). An example: Farmer flies drone over paddock to detect nutrient stress levels – finds the plants are on average doing well and holds off applying fertiliser. They can also map disease prevalence, biomass and predict yield across the paddock to tailor farm inputs to each individual area! How neat is that.
  2. Irrigation – thermal cameras mounted on drones are currently used to fly out over crops and check on canopy temperature. Basically, the canopy temperature of water stressed plants is higher due to a loss of the evaporative cooling effect of water leaving the leaves. Using this data, irrigation is scheduled based on crop stress levels.
  3. Crop spraying – imagine an army of drones flying out over the paddock, each covering a small area before returning to the docking station and refilling. Large areas could be covered with a whole swarm. This apparently futuristic idea is futuristic no more, with Andrew Bate in Queensland recently launching a pair of ground-based autonomous sprayers. Further, drones capable of spraying already exist such as the DJI AGRAS MG-1. These can cover 1ha over the duration of the flight and with the correct programming and refill point would be able to act in a swarm. Super neat! Drones also offer the ability to map weeds in the paddock so that spray application is targeted rather than uniform. This would reduce the economic and environmental cost of herbicides.

To conclude, whilst drones may be small and perceived as either killing machines in warzones or as playthings in peaceful countries, they represent an incredible opportunity to the Australian Agricultural Industry. Increasing productivity all the while reducing environmental impact and costs. I’ll leave you with a few videos of drones in ag.

Until next time,

Guy

 

Away with the hoe and in with the RTK GPS

Away with the hoe and in with the RTK GPS sub-2cm inter-row sowing

It takes but a quick glimpse over current agricultural machinery to understand the complexity, high level of technology and sophistication involved with growing a crop. In Australia approximately 70% of farmers have adopted some form of GPS guidance. The most accurate guidance (Real Time Kinematic or RTK GPS – uses a base station) is so precise that it can move off the track no more than the thickness of two iPhones! It certainly has more computing power too, collecting up to 100MB per paddock of data on fuel consumption, seeding rate, amount of grain  harvested whilst signalling control valves and solenoids to open and close based on position. I could go on about how fantastic this technology is (I’m a bit of a sucker for innovation) and how far advanced Australian farmers are but videos paint a thousand pictures so check these out below.

The first example is a completely autonomous tractor towing a ‘chaser’ bin allowing the harvester to unload on the run! The tractor waits on the sidelines and is summoned at the press of a button.

This next video is filmed in WA. The boom of the sprayer is fitted with a number of GreenSeeker weed detectors illuminating the ground with infrared and red light to detect any green foliage. The spray nozzle is only activated over a weed, reducing herbicide (weed-killer) usage by up to 90%.

The sensors in this video function by measuring the reflected light from the sun to detect green foliage and similar to the method above, only spraying weeds.

Inter-row sowing is a great example of GPS accuracy. The seeder can place seed between the previous stalks (known as stubble) of last year’s wheat without disturbing a single one! This technique improves water retention, soil carbon storage and protects the young seedling from wind and heavy rain.

And finally sometimes not doing anything becomes boring:

Stay tuned for more videos and information on how far advanced current agriculture really is! Next week: Drones.

Guy

Bridging the Agri-Urban Gap

“My grandfather used to say that once in your life you need a doctor, lawyer, policeman and a preacher; but everyday, three times a day, you need a farmer”  Brenda Schoepp

As of May 2016, the Australian Agricultural Industry employed just over 320,000 people or 1.5% of Australians, in jobs directly related with food production. These farmers, labourers, shearers, stock handlers and breeders, to name a few, are responsible for feeding over 70,000,000 people worldwide! How’s that for growing an impact.

Australians are lucky enough to enjoy some of the best food going around, with the safety and quality of our grain, beef and cotton making it highly sought after around the world: Udon noodles in Japan, bread in Indonesia, Vietnam and Cambodia, to noodles, beef and bread in China – the ‘Made in Australia’ branding a key selling point in distinguished restaurants. I know I often take this quality for granted!

Yet because 66% of us live in the urban area we often miss out on meeting those responsible for our meals and the 69,999,999 others relying on Australian farmers each day. Back in the early days, when farms were smaller, rural towns more populated and many people closer descendants of farmers, the connection with the land was more prominent. So how do urban Australians rediscover that connection ?

The first step is education on provenance and process.

Internet, technology and social media allows people to be closer to the country than ever before. Farmers are one of the most active groups of users on twitter, providing a fantastic opportunity to connect. It must be remembered that connection is a two way street. Farmers and urban consumers have much to learn from each other for the benefit of all.

Many consumers may now be beginning to understand the origins of their Saturday morning brunch, the daily toast or the lunchtime avocado and salad sandwich as packaging and marketing campaigns aim to focus on advertising local produce and its benefits in quality. But do you know when and how the avocado was grown and picked? Or the labour intensive process of producing edible quinoa on those quinoa-based eggs benedict?

If not, well that’s what AgriEducate is here for! It is an exciting prospect informing people about something they never even considered – take this xkcd comic as an example. I for sure, love learning new things everyday!

http://imgs.xkcd.com/comics/ten_thousand.png

So don’t be shy, ask us a question on Twitter or through the Contact form and together we can begin to bridge the Agri-Urban gap improving outcomes for everyone.