Cal Poly Strawberry Center and U.S. Department of Agriculture Research Service Receive $1M in Federal Funding

Cal Poly Strawberry Center and U.S. Department of Agriculture Research Service Receive $1M in Federal Funding to Focus Efforts on Automation Advancements in the Field

The Cal Poly Strawberry Center, in collaboration with the California Strawberry Commission and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service (USDA ARS) in Salinas, California, was awarded $1 million in federal funding to expand its research in strawberry automation leading to enhanced sustainable farming practices, including workforce development. 

The funding, awarded through the “Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2023” bill, was championed by members of the California delegation in the House and Senate and will be reoccurring in future years.

The program will bring together farmers, entrepreneurs, researchers, educators and students to focus on development and deployment of innovative automation and mechanization technologies related to planting, pruning, pest management, picking and processing in the strawberry industry. Funds will support applied research in the field and help foster a workforce pipeline to support sustainable food production needed to meet the demands of a growing population. With this funding, the Cal Poly Strawberry Center will provide hands-on training to graduate and undergraduate students from a mix of STEM and agricultural fields, with the goal of developing technologies to enhance workforce efficiency and safety while mitigating risks from pests and disease. Students will be challenged to think creatively about real-world solutions, with an emphasis on current issues in the industry.

“This project will train the next generation of industry stewards who will be well-versed in crop production technologies and prepare them to become future leaders in agricultural technology,” said Gerald Holmes, director of the Cal Poly Strawberry Center.

The program will supply the industry with graduates who possess the capabilities and formal training necessary to tackle an array of critical issues, find solutions, and keep California’s strawberry industry at the frontline of research and production. 

“The California Strawberry Commission and the Strawberry Center are constantly working to provide California strawberry family farming operations with the latest in farming automation, and this grant will certainly aid expanding automated farming practices,” said Rick Tomlinson, California Strawberry Commission president.

“The Central Coast’s No. 1 product is the amazing fruits, vegetables and other agricultural goods that we grow to feed our region and the world,” said Rep. Salud Carbajal. “That’s why I work every week in Congress to ensure that our region — from its farms to its agricultural research institutions like Cal Poly — get the support they need from our federal budget. I was proud to fight for this investment, and I look forward to seeing the great and delicious work that the Strawberry Center does with this funding.”

Increased focus on automation technologies will help increase strawberry production and lead to a higher-quality product, supplying a steady stream of healthy produce. Increasing production will also improve the global competitiveness of California's strawberry industry as it competes with imports from Canada, Mexico and China. The introduction of advanced technologies, including automation capabilities, are critical to the long-term competitiveness for domestic production of strawberries and other specialty crops within the international agricultural marketplace.

“Strawberry producers in California are essential to our nation’s agriculture industry and local economy but continue to face serious workforce challenges,” said Rep. Jimmy Panetta. “I'm proud to have fought for this critical federal investment so that we can continue to do the necessary research and development at the Salinas USDA ARS Field Station and Cal Poly to get harvesting technology out of the laboratory and into our strawberry fields. Although the human discernment necessary to pick and pack a strawberry is difficult to replace, our agriculture workforce is aging and shrinking. That is why we must continue to support the development of new technology with federal funding to ensure that California remains the strawberry bowl for the world.”

The Census Bureau projects that the U.S. population will reach 438 million by 2050, increasing the demand for sustainably grown foods. At the Cal Poly Strawberry Center, the first year of this multi-year project will be focused on developing high-tech machinery to autonomously cut runners off strawberry plants. Subsequent years’ work will include focused technological advances on the removal of weeds and unhealthy plant material in commercial, open-field production. This increases harvest yield and provides a non-chemical approach to decreasing concomitant pests and disease vectors.

“Americans enjoy strawberries grown in our local communities, and I couldn’t be more proud to represent Ventura County, which is at the heart of this robust and delicious agricultural industry,” said Rep. Julia Brownley. “It is for these reasons that I have worked with local stakeholders to obtain $1 million to help Cal Poly’s Strawberry Center conduct research on strawberry farming automation. This tremendous win for the region will allow students with hands-on learning opportunities as they work to further our collective efforts to sustain the strawberry industry into the future.”

The Cal Poly Strawberry Center has demonstrated success as a collaborative partner focused on increasing the sustainability of the strawberry industry through research and education that addresses the needs of the $5.2 billion industry. Over the last five years, the Strawberry Center has successfully developed and commercialized several types of enhanced strawberry production equipment such as the Lygus bug vacuum, spray rig, strawberry decapper, plastic hole puncher and hoop house disassembler. This new funding will leverage the center’s proven method of developing transformative technologies that meet farmers’ needs with the USDA Agricultural Research Service’s world-leading strawberry production research to ensure California strawberries are sustainable and globally competitive.

“I am proud to have secured funding for the Cal Poly Strawberry Center to help expand its research and mission to safeguard the sustainability of the California strawberry industry and enhance workforce efficiency and safety,” said Senator Alex Padilla. “This federal investment will help equip the next generation of industry leaders with the necessary tools to ensure the industry’s resilience and solve the challenges ahead.”

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