UMD Scientists Strive for more Sustainable Strawberry Fields

Dr. John Lea-Cox from the Department of Plant Science & Landscape Architecure is leading a research team that will study how wireless sensor networks can improve sustainable strawberry production.

Image Credit: Edwin Remsberg

December 1, 2014 Sara Gavin

Researchers with the University of Maryland’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources are helping to design the strawberry field of the future – one that conserves water, utilizes less fertilizer, has enhanced frost protection and is more cost-efficient, all while producing the sweetest berries possible.

The UMD project is part of the National Strawberry Sustainability Initiative funded by a grant from the Walmart Foundation and administered by the University of Arkansas Center for Agricultural and Rural Sustainability. More than a dozen land-grant colleges and universities across the country are involved with the initiative.

Led by Professor John Lea-Cox, Ph.D., from the Department of Plant Science and Landscape Architecture (PSLA), the UMD research team is implementing wireless sensor networks in strawberry fields at three locations in Maryland. These advanced sensor networks consist of radio nodes with sensors placed in the soil, in the plant canopy, and weather stations, to collect precise data on environmental conditions, soil moisture and temperature and fertilizer concentration.

“Water scarcity due to drought is a serious problem affecting production in the major strawberry growing regions of the country,” said Lea-Cox. “Here in the mid-Atlantic region specifically, current environmental regulations limit the amount of agrochemicals like pesticides and fertilizers that can be applied to strawberry farms. That’s why farmers need specific information about their practices to address these concerns, if sustainable strawberry production is to be achieved.”

Using wireless sensor networks, farmers can access information from their fields in real-time using a computer, smart phone, tablet or any other device connected to the internet. They can also set up alerts to be sent via text message or email letting them know when an event occurs such as when soil moisture drops below a specific target, or when plants are vulnerable to frost – a major economic concern in the strawberry industry.

Lea-Cox and colleagues have been working with these wireless sensor networks in nursery and greenhouse productions for a number of years, helping growers streamline operations and decrease costs. They are also testing a new control node that automatically irrigates based on soil moisture – technology that has saved between 50 and 70% of water applications compared to grower practices – developed as part of the USDA-MINDS project.

“We wanted to test these systems in a high-value fruit crop – and strawberries really are the perfect fit,” said Lea-Cox. “We believe we can make a tremendous difference for strawberry producers in terms of conserving resources, controlling costs and improving overall efficiency.”

The research team from Maryland includes Erik Lichtenberg, Ph.D., from the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics, who will study the potential economic benefits for strawberry farmers in utilizing wireless sensor networks. John Majsztrik, Ph.D., a faculty research associate from the PSLA Department and Bruk Belayneh, a PSLA Ph.D. student, are also part of UMD’s strawberry research team.

Field tests will be conducted at Butler’s Orchard in Germantown, Md., Shlagel Farms in Waldorf, Md. and at the university’s Wye Research and Education Center located in Queenstown, Md. For more information and to follow the project’s progress, visit