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Farm moves into high tech

It was not that long ago that “bar codes” referred to what the bartender told phoning wives checking on the whereabouts of their spouses.

Just two decades ago, a sitting U.S. president suffered an embarrassing moment when he marveled at the bar-code scanners in place at grocery stores to speed up customer checkout and assure accuracy. Few considered agricultural applications for the technology. If they did, it was most likely limited to the pattern of black lines being placed on bags of fertilizer and seed, and containers of pesticides and herbicides.

Well, add another check mark to “things you never thought you’d see in farming.”

Old-school North Carolina farming operation Clay T. Strickland Farms of Spring Hope, and its marketing arm, Spring Acres Sales, are putting technology to work to track individual boxes of produce. And they’ve hired a North Carolina State University ag student to oversee the operation.

Jordan Jackson, 21, of the nearby community of Momeyer, is a rising senior at NCSU majoring in agriculture business management. She is the food safety/quality assurance manager at Spring Acres Sales.

“This is part of the Produce Traceability Initiative [PTI] to cut down on contamination and food safety issues,” Jackson says. “We’re using it for sweet potato traceability. We can track the grower and the field that a potential problem starts in … so, if ‘Farmer John’ has E. coli in some of his product, we can quarantine that specific field and not have to shut down the entire operation.”

Jackson says most of the highly publicized food recalls have involved leafy produce, but that Spring Acres has been attempting to get ahead of the game. By the end of 2011, as this story is being written, pallet and case labeling will become mandatory.

“Our tracts with sweet potatoes have their GPS coordinates recorded, and the potato boxes are tagged according to which field they came from,” she says. “The barcode is scanned into the system. The potatoes are stored and cured here, and once they’re run on the packing line that label follows them on to the 40-pound box they are shipped in. It is especially helpful since we not only grow our own potatoes, but market potatoes of other growers.”

The packing lines at Spring Acres start at 7:30 a.m., and Jackson helps create case labeling by grower batches. The use of information does not stop there. The bar codes can also help the recordkeeping by documenting chemical applications and they come in handy for GAP, or Good Agricultural Practices with this USDA program, and global GAP auditing to keep the operation in compliance with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations program.

The weather, humidity and chemical information can be added into the software as well. Strickland Farms/Spring Acres has been using the system for almost a year, and Jackson has been there from the start.

“Some [other operations] are a little behind the curve,” Jackson says. “The traceability is not just important for growers and packers, but for customers to use in their distribution and marketing. People like having the information, and a lot of large customers want it.”

Strickland Farms grows about 650 acres of sweet potatoes and splits another 2,600 acres among tobacco, soybeans and wheat. It does not disclose how many bushels of sweet potatoes it processes for other growers. Spring Acres markets the sweet potatoes domestically and overseas, with markets in the United Kingdom making up a big portion of exports — as is the case with many North Carolina growers.

Jackson has enjoyed the job and did not come to agriculture in the traditional way — by growing up on the farm.“I was very involved in FFA [Future Farmers of America] at Southern Nash High School and I came to understand that we have to protect land to protect the food supply; that once asphalt is laid, you can’t go back.

I also found there is more to it than just farming. There are other aspects, and there are a lot of areas in agriculture at North Carolina State University. The agriculture business management could be used anywhere — the human resources aspect of it is specific to farming.”

She also got experience prior to coming to Spring Acres working in strawberries at Leggett Farming Partnership, an award-winning farm operation [featured in Carolina-Virginia Farmer in June 2010] run by a young couple, Brent and Sue Leggett, just outside Nashville.

Clay Strickland started farming as a teenager, and planted his first sweet potato crop with his wife, Dianne, in 1969. Spring Acres was started in 1973. Today, the operation is run by the Stricklands’ daughter, Cindy Strickland Joyner.

“It has been so valuable to see how the things we’ve learned in school are put into use every day, from the technology to the farm tractors running up and down the road,” Jackson says. “I get a general scope of how North Carolina does agriculture, and then North Carolina’s role in the country. I go to class a couple of days a week and work here a couple of days a week, and get to see if it all matches. The biggest thing I’ve learned is how to deal with labor. The textbooks all say things are feasible financially, but the reality is a little different.”

Her education was enhanced with a trip over spring break, when a group of NCSU students traveled to Europe, visiting London, Paris and Wales to visit farms and markets.

“It was interesting to see the other end and talk to buyers of North Carolina products,” Jackson says. “We saw sweet potatoes in stores and restaurants and how they are different … and how different the dishes are.”

Brantley writes from Nash County, N.C.

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ON-THE-JOB TRAINING: Jordan Jackson, on the sorting/packing floor at Spring Acres Sales, gets to apply what she learns at North Carolina State University to the real world of farming each week.

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READY TO SORT, GRADE AND CODE: Traceability technology helps farm operations track produce all the way from the fields to the 40-pound shipping boxes.

This article published in the January, 2012 edition of CAROLINA-VIRGINIA FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2012.