24 August 2001

Equipment with a nose for trouble in pipeline

Growers could soon be

adding data from smell

sensors to the records they

keep of key environmental

conditions inside potato

stores. Mike Williams

reports on the latest lines

EQUIPMENT for monitoring important factors such as temperature change and humidity levels in potato stores, and recording the information manually or on a computer, has been available for years. In some cases the data can also be used to measure degree-days or the physiological ageing of the potatoes during the storage period, but smell sensing and recording would be a new addition to the information available in the data banks for potato stores.

Although the idea is not yet available commercially, Iain Pirie, sales and marketing director for the F J Pirie company, says in-store smell measuring and recording is increasingly regarded as a future possibility. It would be unlikely to present any major technical difficulties and the information could be useful for potato store management and as part of the traceability records for the stored crop, he says.

"It is certainly an idea that is being discussed at present, and if it becomes available commercially it would involve special sensors and it could be provided as an add-on to existing store monitoring equipment," says Mr Pirie. "The ability to measure the presence of some types of smell accurately could identify a number of storage problems at an early stage, and it could be a useful management tool."

One example would be measuring levels of ethylene inside the storage building. This could help to identify a disease problem in the stored crop and allow remedial action to be taken.

Using data collected from potato store sensors to calculate the physiological ageing of the stored tubers provides useful information for customers who buy seed potatoes, but buyers of crisping potatoes are also becoming interested in the same information. Ageing during the storage period depends on a combination of time and temperature, and Mr Piries crop store monitoring equipment measures both and can automatically convert the information into the degree-days on which the physiological age is based.

"This does not give a total figure because the ageing that took place before the crop was harvested is not known, but it is a useful guide to what has happened during storage and more customers are asking for it," says Mr Pirie.

The Pirie Electronic Control Monitor or ECM2000 was introduced in the mid 1990s. The data it collects can be recorded manually or downloaded on to a smart card or a laptop for transfer to the farm office computer, and the advantage of this arrangement is that it makes sure somebody enters the potato store on a regular basis to collect the data.

ECM units can also be linked directly to the main computer allowing data to be transferred automatically, but this does not mean that regular inspection visits inside the store are no longer required. Even with the most sophisticated monitoring and control equipment installed, potato stores still need regular visits, preferably on a daily basis – just to check that everything is in order, Mr Pirie explains.

The need for regular visits to the store is endorsed by Bill Leslie, managing director of Farm Electronics at Grantham, Lincs. The crop in the store is valuable and quality is a critical factor. A routine of regular visits can sometimes identify problems at an early stage, before they register on the monitoring equipment, or there may be problems the monitors are not equipped to measure, he says.

Although potato store monitoring equipment has been available for 20 years or more, the initial uptake was slow and the upsurge in interest has been a much more recent development.

"Many more potato stores have equipment installed these days, but quite a significant number of growers use the information as a management aid and dont always bother to record it," says Mr Leslie. "I think this is because the majority of growers are not actually asked for the records, so they dont bother to keep them. In some cases they prefer to take down the data manually, and we supply prepared forms for the figures to be recorded, and these are popular.

"But the situation is changing, and more of our customers are updating their Cropscan monitoring equipment and linking it directly to the computer. This will often happen when the next generation comes back to the farm after learning about computers at college. &#42

but farmers are generally becoming more familiar with computers and their value for data storage and retrieval. Keeping detailed records of the storage conditions can be a valuable management tool, but I think it will also be increasingly important to meet the demand for traceability." z

Rightt: Data from FJPiries ECM2000 can be downloaded on to a smart card or a laptop and transferred to farm office computer.

Left: Farm Electronics Cropscan 16 controller has a 14-day memory for crop temperatures and can record equipment operations at six-hour intervals.