FIDO – A Do-it-yourself Temperature Monitor with Text Message Alerts

As I’ve mentioned in several other posts, I think the continual monitoring of conditions in greenhouses and food storage spaces is incredibly important for quality and safety and insightful for any operation. There is a really clever design for a do-it-yourself temperature monitoring system called Fido, on the FarmHack site.  It uses an Arduino control and electronics platform, a cheap cell phone, and a few other pretty inexpensive pieces to do the job.

“A farmer-built electronic tool that can monitor greenhouse temperature, record greenhouse data, and alert the farmer to problems in the greenhouse via cell phone text message. This tool will be much more affordable and useful than commercially available greenhouse alarms (which rely on landline connections or internet connections, which usually aren’t available in the greenhouse).

I’ll be trying to add RH monitoring to this soon, and will update the post when that is complete.

Wash and Pack Stations

This is a great video overview from the Cornell Cooperative Extension Small Farms Project with helpful guidance on wash and pack station layout. More on the Cornell Small Farm Project can be found here.  This video was part of a NE-SARE funded project.

Some highlights:

  • Cover – prepare for all conditions; rain, wind, cold, heat
  • Lighting – ensure plenty either naturally or artificially
  • One Directional Flow – dirty on one end and clean on the other, work zones, specialty zones
  • Avoid extra and repeated steps
  • Bench/Counter Height – 30″ is comfortable for an average person
  • Some benches lower than the working surface for packing bins (keep the top of the bin level with the counter)
  • Containment – back splash and fencing to prevent loss of produce to the ground
  • Water sources – consider overhead routing and multiple taps
  • Water drains – where will the water go?
  • Float valve for wash tanks
  • Dedicated area for record keeping, dedication to record keeping
  • Marked containers, color coding bins (dirty vs. clean, crop specific)
  • Creature comforts such as floor mats, etc.
  • Logistics – pre vs. post market

2013 VVBGA Annual Meeting

I had the pleasure of joining the Vermont Vegetable and Berry Grower’s Association yesterday for their annual meeting.  This event is packed with presentations ranging from the latest pests to farmer outreach in distant lands.

My talk was on crop storage, and it was a great chance to summarize my recent work in this area.  I’ve been fortunate to have worked closely with several growers in this area including Isaac Jacobs and Pete Johnson of Pete’s Greens, Jon Satz of Wood’s Market Garden, Andrew Knafel of Clearbrook Farm, Howard Prussak of High Meadows Farm, and Jeremy Gildrien of Gildrien Farm. I’ve also benefited from conversations with Jim Thompson and the resources he helped create at the UC Davis Postharvest Technology Center.

The presentation slides are available at the VVBGA’s website. I’m still very grateful for the responses to the food storage survey, and we discussed these at the meeting.  I also highlighted 5 things I think are critical considerations for VT growers storing vegetables and berries.

  • Zoned Storage – While many are zoning (or grouping) their stored products based on optimal temperature and relative humidity (RH), it is also important to consider a zone for pre-cooling product as it comes into storage. The sudden addition of product with field heat and elevated respiration can contribute significantly to the cooling load in the room and could lead to slightly warming other crops already in storage.  Additionally, we talked about the need to consider ethylene production of crops and also their sensitivity to it; sometimes requiring outside air exchange to remove the ethylene.  Most are familiar with ethylene production from apples, but even common vegetable crops also produce some. Storage conditions for main crops as well as respiration rates and ethylene emission rates can all be found in USDA Handbook 66.
  • Measurement and Monitoring – It is understandable that one should expect a cooler to be at the temperature you set on the thermostat.  But I’m a believer in secondary, accurate measurement to confirm storage conditions.  This means both temperature and RH.  I urge growers to check it regularly (daily), and to keep track in some sort of log so that trends are captured.  This can take the form of an advanced remote data monitoring system, but it can also take the form of a simple clipboard or notebook.  The important thing is that the conditions are actually measured with an accurate device such as a certified and calibrated thermohygrometer or sling psychrometer and be recorded. Here’s a video showing how to use a sling psychrometer (equally useful in a greenhouse or cooler, although I recommend “slinging” for 1 minute or more, taking 3 readings to check for stability, and using a psychrometric calculator to determine RH as the slide calculator on the device is not terribly accurate.)

  • Scouting – Despite all the best intentions; zoning your storage and confirming the conditions, sometimes you still run into problems.  There are varietal differences in storage and many other factors that will influence how the crops keep in storage.  So it is important to “scout” the storage as well.  This can be daunting with bins and boxes piled high, but catching a problem early could help prevent a major loss.  It is possible, as well, that you have to deviate from the published references for storage conditions for a certain crop.  The verification of the storage conditions is the measurement step above, but the validation is the crop quality.  The proof is always in the pudding.
  • Cooler Audits – It is hard to make time to stop and smell the roses, and it is hard to take time to stop and audit your cooler. But there are things you can do on a routine basis that take little to no additional time.
  • Check Door Seals – Walk inside the cooler, shut off the lights and look around the door for daylight.  If you find spots with light shining through look more closely at the seal in that area, it may need repair or replacement.  Look also for frost (on freezers) or condensation (on coolers) which can also be signs of air leakage.
  • Door Closure Tightness – Even if your seals are in good condition, the door must shut snugly to have them work.  Most commercial cooler doors have adjustable latches.  Make sure there is no play in the latch when the door is closed, and adjust as needed so it closes tightly.
  • Mold, Condensation – Keep an eye out for mold and/or water condensation, this may point to air circulation issues or dead spots of air flow that need to be addressed.
  • Noise – Noise is energy, and if you get to know the typical “hum” of your compressor and fans, you’ll be able to tell when something is amiss.  New noises or more frequent operation of the compressor can signal a significant change in the refrigeration system (a higher than normal load, or heavier work than normal.) Keep an ear out for new noises and do a complete walk around on a regular basis to catch maintenance issues early.
  • Coil Cleaning – The air coils are the lungs of the system, and they need to be clear of debris.  Regular coil cleaning should be added to any preventative maintenance or seasonal job list.  If your system can’t reject heat (either inside the box or outside the box), you’re not cooling as effectively as you could.  This definitely means reduced efficiency and increased energy use, but it could also mean reduced storage efficacy and premature spoilage.
  • Mechanical Maintenance – A trained mechanical contractor should inspect your system on a regular basis (yearly prior to your main storage season). This will help minimize the chances of system failures and (worse) crop loss.
  • Technical Resources – There are several excellent resources available on crop storage.  The New England Vegetable Guide is an excellent overall crop guide that includes basic storage information.  To dive a bit deeper, look at the USDA Handbook 66, note that the online edition has increased detail than the last print edition. I also recommend the UC Davis Postharvest Technology site which has a wide array of searchable resources, many of which are crop specific. If you get real deeply involved in environmental control (temperature and humidity), you might want to learn more about psychrometric charts and calculators.  These allow you to very accurately understand the relationship of water vapor and air and are especially useful when used with a sling psychrometer.


Remote Data Monitoring – 1st Install at Pete’s Greens

As an engineer, I love data.  It turns out farmers do also.  At least, Pete Johnson and Isaac Jacobs at Pete’s Greens in Craftsbury, VT do. “Is it working yet?” Isaac asks as I put the finishing touches on the remote data monitoring system we have been installing in the four zone drive-in cooler. “Just about… I think.” I say with trepidation. Isaac has been up and down in a scissor lift several times at placing and removing a sensor that was being difficult. And I’ve been wrestling with a data station to make it communicate over the wireless network so that we can actually see the data being collected by the new remote monitoring system.

Installing Remote Sensor in Cabbage Room
Isaac Jacobs of Pete’s Greens (Craftsbury) installs a remote temperature and relative humidity sensor in the cabbage room of the farm’s cooler.

This is the first time we’ve installed this kind of system which consists of a “base station” and “remote sensors”.  The remote sensors in this case measure temperature and relative humidity (RH), both parameters which can drastically influence the storage life, quality and food safety of produce.  In fact, the motivation for multiple storage “zones” in the cooler is to provide each group of vegetables their desired set of conditions; e.g. potatoes at 38 °F and 90-95% RH, onions at 32 °F and 65-70% RH, cabbage at 32 °F and 99% RH and squash at 55 °F and 70% RH.

Setting up the Data Logger
The items to the left of the laptop are the remote data logging system. Each of the five sensors can measure temperature and relative humidity over a wide range and report it back to the base station which uploads it to a website for review. Alarms can be set to alert users via email if conditions exceed high or low limits.

“What are those spikes in temperature?” Pete asks as we glance over the first set of data that pops onto the screen.  There are spikes in temperature every 8 hours in the potato room that last about one hour.  Not big spikes (2 °F above the nominal), but they stand out.  And perhaps as important, relative humidity drops by 2% when the temperature goes up.

Later, when Isaac and I are looking at the electrical wiring to see where we can plug in additional sensors we note that evaporator defrost system in that room is on an 8 hour timer; that’s the source of the heat.  “Well, they don’t even need to be on right now, that room isn’t even being cooled.” The circuit breakers for the evaporator heaters (intended to defrost the evaporator when it freezes up) are shut off, reducing the farm’s electric bill slightly over the next few months. And this is only two hours after we started getting data.

The power of data is three-fold.  First it is inspired by inquisition. It then raises additional questions and with further review, it should answer questions and improve life.  The principle behind this project is to allow for easier access to process data for Vermont’s growers and to demonstrate this type of system. As farms push the seasonal envelope in response to increased local demand, year-round production and long term storage of fruits and vegetables will be increasingly important. I plan to use this system at multiple locations in Vermont to collect data on refrigerated storage, greenhouse and high tunnel production, and whatever else comes along that is interesting and makes sense.

UC Davis Guide: Small-Scale Postharvest Practices

This guide from the UC Davis Postharvest Center is jam packed with information relevant to VT’s small-scale growers seeking improved post-harvest handling and processing. I think it is a nice companion to the New England Vegetable Management Guide and USDA’s Handbook 66. The UC Davis Postharvest Center has a wonderful on-line library with many other titles which may be of interest including an overview of small-scale cold room options and one on root cellars and other passive storage options.

One question that seems to come up regularly is “how big a cooler do I need?”  I’d recommend grower’s review Table 7 in Heatcraft’s Engineering Manual which includes typical “product loading densities” in pounds per cubic foot.  Based on your typical yields and acres in production you can use this to estimate a reasonably sized storage space.

“The three main objectives of applying postharvest technology to harvested fruits and vegetables are:

  1. to maintain quality (appearance, texture, flavor and nutritive value)
  2. to protect food safety, and
  3. to reduce losses between harvest and consumption.

Effective management during the postharvest period, rather than the level of sophistication of any given technology, is the key in reaching the desired objectives. While large scale operations may benefit from investing in costly handling machinery and high-tech postharvest treatments, often these options are not practical for small-scale handlers. Instead, simple, low cost technologies often can be more appropriate for small volume, limited resource commercial operations, farmers involved in direct marketing, as well as for suppliers to exporters in developing countries.”

VPR Series on VT Food – All Week on Morning Edition

Visit VPR’s site to listen to archived episodes.

“VPR looks at the economic impact of food production in Vermont in the special series The Business of Food.

All this week during Morning Edition, we’re looking at the expansion of farmer’s markets from a summer calendar schedule to a year-round operation, how community planners in southeastern Vermont say it’s time to go beyond co-ops and plan for a “post-oil” world, how “farm to plate”initiatives have resulted in good social policy and how downtown planners are using food co-ops as a lure to enliven central business districts.

Listen this week at 7:50 a.m. during Morning Edition.”

Food Storage Survey Results

Thanks to all of those who took the time to respond to the food storage survey several weeks back.  The information you provided has been really helpful.  A clear desire for additional programming in this area was expressed, and I’ll be working to develop that.

Here are the survey result highlights:

  • 82% of respondents expressed interest in a formalized course on food storage topics with the overwhelming majority preferring classroom / workshop format and/or a webinar.
  • 66% of respondents have plans to expand your food storage capacity in the next 24 months.
  • While most respondents expressed concern about the utility costs of their storage systems, relatively few (37%) currently know those costs.
  • 60% are storing in multiple zones (Temp and RH), but the overall knowledge of optimal storage conditions is relatively low (see related post on USDA Handbook 66).
  • Winter markets included (% reporting sales to each)
    • Wholesale (74%)
    • Retail (41%)
    • Farmer’s Markets (41%)
    • Winter CSA (38%)
  • The most common systems in use are (% reporting use):
    • Walkin cooler (57%)
    • Chest freezers (55%)
    • Heated Winter Storage (39%)
    • Root Cellar / Other Cool Storage (not refrig’d) (31%)
    • CoolBot(TM) (28%) – CoolBots(TM) website
    • Walkin freezer (16%)
    • Other cooler refrigerated (16%)
  • Other areas where respondents expressed interest in learning more included:
    • basic refrigeration principles / fundamentals
    • equipment overview
    • construction how-to
    • general post-harvest handling best practices
    • insulation trade-off / bang for your insulation buck
    • building in resilience / what happens when the power goes away?
    • making better use of cold winter air and thermal storage
    • how to best segment a walkin / zoning the storage space
    • short vs. long term storage practices
    • economics; what is this actually costing me now and in the future?
  • When asked about their own lessons learned, respondents noted:
    • Get field heat out quickly and keep it cold
    • Excellent storage is key to having excellent product
    • Insulate, insulate, and then insulate some more
    • Measurement of temperature (and RH) is critical, don’t assume you are hitting your target conditions
    • Watch out for ethylene off-gas from, e.g., apples
    • Climate change is impacting harvest timing and therefore marketability and storage needs
    • Plan for power loss
    • Insure your product for loss while in storage
    • Build bigger than what you presently need. Coolers and freezers are quickly outgrown.
    • Consider “keeping it on the hoof” instead of harvest and storage.
    • Pre-sell – grow only what you know you can sell – Sales and product movement are critical.  Do the pre-planning.

Efficiency Vermont Incentives for Agriculture

Efficiency Vermont Logo




Are you considering any equipment upgrades in the near future.  Check Efficiency Vermont’s webpage to research available technologies and to see if any of their many incentives apply to you. They have a set of rebates specific to agriculture and some for commercial refrigeration which may apply to folks with refrigerated storage on their farm.  Been thinking about an outside air economizer to take advantage of the chilly winter air in your walk-in?  Check out the rebates.  They even have some programs focused on heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems which may apply to greenhouse heating with a pellet furnace or boiler. Want to learn more about Efficiency Vermont, including where the money comes from? Read on…

USDA Handbook 66 – Fruit, Berry and Vegetable Storage Guide

USDA Handbook 66The USDA regularly produces its Agricultural Handbook 66 – “The Commercial Storage of Fruits, Vegetables, and Florist and Nursery Stocks” to help guide long term storage of these products. The handbook is dense with info on optimal storage conditions for everything from Jerusalem Artichokes to Watercress. Each crop is given a brief overview which summarizes the expected loss when stored at certain conditions and also a summary of respiration rates to help with the sizing of any refrigeration that may be needed.

Many Vermont growers are probably familiar with the green book from 1986.  But did you know that a newer version is available online?  I was surprised to see how much the online version had that the printed version did not and (believe it or not) some recommendations have changed.  As you are putting things in storage for winter markets and other outlets, consider reviewing the revised Handbook 66 online. You may be surprised by what you find.