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Utah State researchers get close to $2 million to study state’s largest fruit crop

A photo of a man driving a ATV through grass.
Brent Black
ATVs are used to drag electromagnetic probes through an orchard to analyze soil characteristics.

Tart cherries are rich in nutrients, have been found to help people sleep better and can be used as a base for Thanksgiving pies.

They’re also Utah’s largest fruit crop, bringing up to $21 million into the state each year. About 55% of the land used to grow fruit in the state is dedicated to tart cherries, followed by peaches and apples, according to Brent Black, a fruit specialist at Utah State University.

Now, a recent grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture is looking to help Black and Utah farmers optimize production. Black is leading a team of researchers from USU and Michigan State — each representing the country’s two largest tart cherry producing states — to use the nearly $2 million grant to study more efficient crop management techniques.

Using drones, ATVs, and a range of sensors and probes, Black said the team will analyze things like soil composition, tree density, leaf color and disease outbreak in orchards. They’ll create three-dimensional, digital maps detailing all that information, which can then be used to study which areas of the orchard are most productive and where to make precise adjustments.

While tart cherries are well-suited to Utah’s climate and high elevation, orchards often have lots of soil variability that makes them difficult to irrigate and fertilize uniformly. Farmers have also been faced with a statewide drought and competition from international producers.

“One of the reasons we got into this is one of our tart cherry growers approached me and said, ‘Listen, I'm really having a hard time irrigating my crop because I've got sandy spots and I've got clay spots and I'm over irrigating one part under irrigating another. There's got to be a better way to do this,’” Black said.

Much of the technology already exists and is used in major commercial soybean and corn operations, Black said. But smaller scale farmers often lack the time or resources to adopt it.

The grant will help researchers serve a cooperative of Utah farmers over a four-year period.

“We can't solve all the issues in four years,” he said. “But we can lay the groundwork and begin to collect the information so that we can really get a handle on how much benefit this can have.”

Jon reports on quality of life issues, education and the economy
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