LAKE COUNTY, Fla. — More than $2 million in funding will bring artificial intelligence software to the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences offices across the state, including in Central Florida.

What You Need To Know

  • The technology upgrades will embed business intelligence software into UF/IFAS Extension offices in all 67 counties

  • Extension agents with work local growers to provide solutions and research for efficient farming practices

  • One of the ways artificial intelligence can be used in agriculture is by predicting harvest times

  • As blueberry season begins, one Lake County farm is using AI to make growing and harvesting more efficient

UF/IFAS recently received $2.7 million in funding to upgrade technology across its extension offices in all 67 counties across the state. They provide agricultural classes, events and training to the public, and extension agents also use research and data to find efficient farming practices and solutions to share with local growers.

The new technology upgrades will embed business intelligence software into every county’s extension office.

“The technology will use artificial intelligence (AI) to collect, store, and analyze data produced by extension agents and programs,” UF/IFAS said.

The grant for the technology upgrades comes from the office of University of Florida President Ben Sasse, via funding the university received from the Florida Legislature this year.

Christian Christensen, the director of Hastings Agricultural Extension Center and Extension Business Intelligence, said the technology upgrades will allow extension agents to provide quicker solutions and research to local growers. 

“One of the greatest assets that’s going to come out of this initiative is that our county faculty and our county agents are going to have real-time mobile access to critical data that they need to deploy adoptable solutions to our stakeholders and our ranchers,” Christensen said.

In Central Florida, Matt Smith is the Commercial Crop Production and Food Systems Extension Agent for Lake and Orange counties. He said one of the ways AI can be used in agriculture is by predicting when crops are ready to harvest.

“By using data from the field throughout the year, combined with weather models, UF/IFAS is trying to predict the best time to harvest crops all over the state of Florida,” he said.

Smith said that harvesting is one of the most expensive times of the year for growers due to labor, so accurately predicting harvests can help to reduce costs.

One of the growers that Smith works with in Lake County is Ryan Atwood, one of the owners of H&A Farms — an independent farm in Mount Dora that grows more than 10 million blueberries every year and is home to the largest packing house in Florida. 

Atwood said he’s starting to use AI to help predict when his blueberries will be ready for picking. With the projections, he said he will have a better knowledge of when he’ll need to hire labor and how much fruit he can provide to marketers. 

“The better you can do about giving good, accurate projections helps the marketing, the sale of the fruit,” Atwood said. “It helps your labor situation, with when you bring them in and how many you have and all that. So basically, it optimizes the productivity and the efficiency of your operation.” 

Overall, both Atwood and Smith said that AI can help to streamline harvesting. 

As blueberry picking season begins in Florida, Atwood said he’s looking forward to a busy season and is hopeful for what AI predictive models and technology can bring to the business in the future. 

“It’s a win all the way around,” Atwood said. “You’re going to save your own labor. You’re going to be more efficient with the labor that you’re contracting with to help you and you’re gonna increase the value of your crop.”

Smith said he’s looking forward to continuing to work with growers like Atwood, and for technology upgrades to bring more solutions to growers. 

“Anything that we can do as a university to help them achieve their aims, become more efficient, and produce better fruit is only going to be better for Florida farmers and I truly think Florida in general,” Smith said.

UF/IFAS said that the Extension office technology upgrades and outreach programs, “could lead to optimized agricultural yields, better farming practices, and increased economic returns for farmers and ranchers.”

To find your local UF/IFAS Extension office and its services, visit the institute’s statewide map.

As blueberry picking season begins, H&A Farms offers two “U-Pick” locations at its Amber Brooke Farms in Eustis and Williston. The farms’ Blueberry Festival also begins this Saturday.

Reagan Ryan is a 2023 — 2024 Report for America Corps Member, covering the environment and climate across Central Florida for Spectrum News 13. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues.