Users can easily input data using drop-down menus on the AgScouter screen.
Users can easily input data using drop-down menus on the AgScouter screen.

Tomato pest management may have gotten a bit smarter, thanks to a new mobile and Web-based decision-support tool that provides growers and scouts with a larger-scale picture of what’s occurring in the field.

The tool was originally developed to provide a status overview of tomato yellow leaf curl virus and associated whitefly infestations, says Bill Turechek, a research plant pathologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service lab in Fort Pierce.

But it’s since been expanded to include other vegetable pests and diseases. ZedX Inc. of Bellefonte, Pa., which specializes in Web-based decision-support systems for agriculture, is doing the actual system development for what’s being dubbed AgScouter.

From the original system to the mostrecent version, Turechek says it’s evolved to be much more user friendly and provide faster responses.

“It was pretty functional to begin with, but there were things that were needed improvements,” Turechek says, adding he hopes the tool will be available for growers in time for the start of this fall’s vegetable season.

Input from the field

Jupiter-based Glades Crop Care has been a cooperator on the project, providing input and testing new versions for about the past three years, says Galen Frantz, senior crop management specialist who’s based in Lehigh.

This summer, an applications manager from ZedX spent a day with Glades Crop Care to see how scouts used the tool.

“We sent him back with a list of how to improve the system, both for the smartphone and the laptop or desktop interface,” Frantz says.

Based on what he’s seen so far of the program, Frantz says he believes Glades Crop Care will benefit with the issues analysis it provides.

“This will be a really slick way to get data mapped,” he said. “In addition to mapping TYLCV and whitefly populations, we can use this possibly with other diseases, like late blight, or pests such as nematodes.”

The program, for example, will allow Glades Crop Care to georeference each observation they make. The resulting map can then be shown to the client.

“We can carry this out to the grower to show him here’s what your field looks like and here’s where your problems are,” Frantz says. “I anticipate with the phase-out of methyl bromide, there will be a lot more growers getting interested in nematode management. That’s where I see something like this being really, really useful.”

Entering your data

Using drop-down menus, users choose the crop, variety, crop stage, pest and infestation rating, among other variables. Users also can customize their options to fit their crops and practices, Frantz says.

If scouts are in the field, the smartphone’s built-in GPS logs their location for future reference—a practice known as georeferencing. The tool has a security feature that allows users to share none, some or all of the information, and it also allows users to choose with whom they share.

Turechek says he hopes that growers will make public general information, such as pest populations, disease incidence, crop stage and possibly field activities, so they can take a more areawide approach to pest management.

“The idea is for scouts to enter in their actual information, so every field will have data for pest pressures,” Turechek says. “The information would be collected so quickly, it would be amazing.

“You’d get an understanding how things move across fields and between fields. Here suddenly you have the opportunity to visualize the data 50, 60 or 70 scouts collected over the course of a day in real time. You can even visualize data collected over the past week or month, when necessary.”

For example, knowing that your neighbor plans to burn down a crop after harvest, which could send pests looking for a new home, could help you make crop-protection decisions, he says.

Participants also could monitor disease situations and apply pesticides only when a threat is imminent.

Because the data is digital, it can be stored and used to determine whether there are historical hot spots that appear annually.

A long time in the works

The decision tool actually is an off-shoot from research that originally was intended to look at spatial and geographic variables affecting TYLCV outbreaks and the silverleaf whitefly that spreads the virus.

The work is being funded by a five-year U.S. Department of Agriculture Specialty Crop Research Initiative grant.

From 2006 to 2010, Turechek led a group of researchers and consultants who mapped more than 82,000 acres of tomatoes and other vegetables. At the same time, he received scouting reports for 17,000 to 20,000 of those acres.

All of the information was entered into a database with corresponding GPS coordinates. Throughout the period, he obtained weather data from three stations maintained by the National Climate Data Center and one near Immokalee that’s part of FAWN, or Florida Agricultural Weather Network.

Using software to conduct statistical analyses, Turechek says he wanted to characterize the impact of specific climatic and geographic variables on the incidence of TYLCV and silverleaf whitefly populations.

The research showed the severity of TYLCV outbreaks was directly correlated to whitefly populations. Fewer whiteflies equated to fewer virus outbreaks.

The data also showed a correlation between TYLCV outbreaks and prevailing wind directions, with fields downwind having a higher outbreak incidence.

In addition, it showed that cold snaps reduced both TYLCV and whitefly populations.

What Turechek says they did notice was that proximity played a role in whitefly populations and disease severity.

Fields next to a field with high whitefly populations also had high numbers and higher TYLCV incidence.

Even fields that were two or three fields away still had high whitefly populations and a higher virus incidence.

Currently, ARS and university researchers are using the tool to survey tomatoes for the relatively new groundnut ringspot virus and thrips vectors. The work is being funded by the USDA’s Critical Issues program.