Students Pilot Innovative Farming Practices in Yuma

Dec. 3, 2018

Students Pilot Innovative Farming Practices in Yuma

The Go To Market Initiative is an experiential learning opportunity between the Eller College and the Yuma Center of Excellence for Desert Agriculture.

During the 2018-19 academic year, Eller students have been traveling to Yuma as part of the Go To Market Initiative—an experiential learning opportunity between the Eller College and the University of Arizona’s Yuma Center of Excellence for Desert Agriculture in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences—with some College of Engineering students for good measure—all who are working together to devise aerial pollination methods for date palm trees.

Date palm trees require meticulous cultivation and, to date, are not efficiently pollinated at scale. A successful date harvest calls for specific and consistent weather conditions, demands the right amount of irrigation and fertilizer and requires an expensive pollen that must be administered within feet of the flower. Eller students have attached a pollen dispenser to the bottom of the drone—and on their first few practice runs, they have achieved a 75 percent success rate.

From a business standpoint, this project, as it gets refined, has the potential to be revolutionary. Date pollen typically retails at $1,000 per liter, and current methods range from literally climbing each tree—some grow up to 50 feet high—and shaking a wand of pollen at the top to blowing pollen out with a leaf blower-like tool, which sacrifices precision.

So the students are working to scale their approach, developing a business plan to eventually present the venture to prospective investors, and are devising a commercializable drone. A subset of the students is also working on having drones pollinate the trees through algorithms that are based on image recognition and signals from various sensors that are attached to the drone.

The “a-ha” moment for the multidisciplinary team has been the joint consideration of the business plan that injects market demands and commercialization opportunities into the engineering design of the solution. This is convergence of thoughts and acceleration towards solutions in a rapidly changing technological and business environment.

Hearing so much about date trees and date pollen cannot match what it is like to physically be there. The students have quickly learned the importance of working together with diverse backgrounds. They have realized that solving an agro problem like pollination can be incredibly compelling and that building on their multi-discipline approach means they can take their solution and thought process to address multitudes of related problems in agriculture and other fields. Funded in part by a foundation endowment and supported by Tech Launch Arizona, the project has been embedded in our graduate-level Special Topics in Entrepreneurship course.

The real test will come when pollination season descends onto Yuma. Then, students will have roughly a four-week window to pollinate the date palm trees with their drone fleet.