Computers In Citrus


Peter D. Spyke

Arapaho Citrus Management, Inc.
Ft. Pierce, Florida

Published in Citrus Industry 77(11):30-32

As I write this article, I'm relaxing in my office and thinking about the future. I've been doing a lot of that lately, and have been fortunate to share the experience with many wonderful people who have chosen to join me in doing so.

On the program of the 1996 Southwest Florida Citrus Expo, Dr. Fedro Zazueta (, with IFAS, gave a great presentation on the ways in which citrus growers and production managers can use personal computers, and Chet Townsend (, during his presentation on the use of the Internet and World Wide Web, officially unveiled an organization called "DISC", which stands for "Decision Information Systems for Citrus".

DISC will be discussed with the industry to a greater extent over the next few months. DISC is basically a joint effort on the part of IFAS, the USDA, growers, and private technology companies to bring Precision Agriculture techniques to our Florida citrus industry. It's very exciting, and promises to increase our profits tremendously. DISC will be discussed at the FACTS meeting in October, and Dr. Larry Parsons has arranged a special workshop at the Florida State Horticulture Society Meeting in November. We encourage people to attend these events to obtain more information (or, you can read all about it right now on the World Wide Web at the URL:

There's only one problem. A lot of the DISC tools will require the use of a personal computer by growers and production managers. So far, though, not very many have them. Whenever the DISC members talk about future planning, which really isn't centered on using computers but does involve them, we realize that there's no way the average citrus grower will be able to use the DISC tools until they learn how to use a computer. So, before we get into DISC, the first topic of discussion apparently should be computers.

I'm writing this article using a Pentium computer which sits on a table next to my desk, and I use it frequently every day. This computer cost about $2,500 a few months ago, but the same thing now costs less than $2,000. When compared to my annual fertilizer budget, or the cost of the miticide in my summer spray, that's not really very much money.

On the hard disk drive, I have installed a lot of different kinds of software (computer programs). Most of them are useful for business purposes, but some of them, such as the 3-D Pinball Machine, are on there just for fun.

Our grove management company has a number of computers in the office. There's one for me, and we have one for our accounting staff and one for our production people. Our books and payroll are all computerized, but we also have complete records of all of our rust mite, PFD, and melanose monitoring, along with grove maps on which each tree is recorded along with it's condition and so forth. Arapaho isn't a giant company, either &endash; these things are really not that hard to do, or expensive. We do feel that they allow us to manage our groves more efficiently, and we routinely use these informational tools to make better decisions.

We also have a computer provided to us by DTN, which only downloads their information from a satellite dish. That one doesn't have a keyboard, but inside is a regular PC which DTN has programmed specifically to run their service. Finally, we have a computer, hooked to a radio receiver, which operates as a network base station for an Adcon system of remote automated weather stations out in the groves. The stations send in the weather measurements every 15 minutes by radio, and the computer saves the data and shows it as a graphic display on the screen. We can also look at the output of weather-related models which tell us when we need to irrigate and other useful things. By next year, this computer will actually be running some of the irrigation systems automatically, including injecting the fertilizer, and telling us if we have plugged emitters and other problems. If the problems are severe, it will call our irrigation manager's beeper number and send an error message.

When I come into the office from the field, I usually sit down in front of the computer and log onto the Internet. Today, for example, I downloaded my electronic mail from friends and business associates, and answered them. This exchange required a few minutes and cost nothing, but if I had phoned them all back I would have spent hours and a fair amount of money. I'm anxious to someday replace most of the role of the three phone lines and FAX line in the office, my two cellular numbers, and my beeper, with e-mail. It's simply a much more efficient form of communication.

Today, I also checked on the forecast and tracking maps for the three hurricanes in the Atlantic &endash; which took another few minutes as opposed to sitting through Michelin tire commercials on the weather channel. If it was winter, I would have checked a new high-resolution 24-hour weather forecast (it has a graphic image of the freeze forecast for hundreds of places in St. Lucie county).

In a couple of years, DISC will have produced computer models of pest and disease pressure, irrigation status, and other things in citrus groves. Some of these models will be able to generate work orders for grove crews, along with the documentation associated with those actions such as MSDS's and posting notices. Grove machinery will know where each individual tree is located, and apply things which that tree needs, while treating the neighboring tree differently. This appropriate use of materials will result in less loss to the environment and higher production per tree, which together will improve cost effectiveness dramatically.

DISC has had a lot discussions with growers and researchers about new technology applications for citrus. Almost all of these applications involve the use of computers. In a lot of cases, growers seem to be reluctant to consider acquiring and learning about a computer, and some even proudly announce that they have no intention of ever seriously considering it as an option. In a meeting the other day, I was showing people a new weather forecasting tool on my laptop computer, which is connected to my cellular flip-phone so that the forecasts can be downloaded on the move. Instead of excitement, there appeared to be apprehension. A good friend in the meeting reminded me that I was different from most growers because I understood how to do these things. I thought about that, and realized that he's right, because computers have been part of my life for a long time.

But he's wrong about the implication that it's hard for growers to get up to speed on computers and technology in general. It's really not very difficult, or expensive. It's probably important that people jump on the computer bandwagon as soon as they can. For a citrus grower, there's one simple reason to do it. Profit. If we, as a group, learn how to use computers, and then actually do use them, we will make more money over the next few years than if we don't.

Why? The answer is "information". Computers are designed to acquire and process information. There are some true geniuses (really) out there in the citrus business. They have amassed a lifetime of experience and information. Yet, as good as they are, no human can match a computer at remembering a million little details over and over again. Granted, the computer can't provide judgment &endash; only an experienced person can do that. But, it can expand the effectiveness and accuracy of judgment to levels which no one has imagined.

So, adopting computers shouldn't threaten growers and production managers &endash; it will actually help them become better growers and production managers. Information is as important a horticultural input as fertilizer or water. If things are not done properly, businesses can't survive. Decisions about how to do things properly are based on information &endash; even without computers. The more information available, and usable, the better the decision becomes, and the more likely it is that action resulting from the decision will produce the desired effect.

The main reason why people go to seminars and grower meetings is to acquire information. They go, listen, and try to remember as much as they can. Then when the time comes to make a decision, they use all the information they can remember. The only problem is that nobody can remember everything, so people tend to do things in about the same way over and over. If there's a change, it's small, because there is uncertainty associated with the decision to change, which is partially the result of incomplete information.

The world will probably not allow this kind of system much longer. If our industry is to remain successful and competitive, we must be able to change. The faster we can change, and the better our decisions, the more money we will make. The ability to change is not based on rootstock or fertilizer rate &endash; it's based totally on our ability to acquire, process, and act on information. The magnitude, and velocity, of information available to us is increasing every day. We will have access to technology which will produce more information than we can possibly imagine. Bottom line &endash; there's no way a grower can spend enough hours sitting in seminars or reading publications to even be exposed to all the information, much less actually remember it.

So, information acquisition and processing will become automated. That's really what DISC is all about. At the heart of this system will be computers, but the real reason behind it is to gather, remember, and use information. The part that we can do better than computers will remain our responsibility, but the part that computers can do better than us will be delegated to the amazing and affordable machines which are readily available, and which will become an increasingly familiar part of our lifestyle.

It's true that computers are changing, and that the computers in the year 2000 will be a lot better, faster, and cheaper than the ones on the market today. But, by then our competitors will also have learned a lot about how to use them. The same argument holds true in favor of learning how to use one as soon as possible that people often use to defend NOT learning, which is that knowledge and experience are the most important attributes of a good businessperson. I certainly agree that there's no substitute. So, it follows that by not learning how to use a computer today, the chance to gain that experience will be forever lost. On the other hand, if experience and familiarity is gained today, then the graduation to a newer, faster, and better machine when the time is appropriate will be even more advantageous.

Some people are concerned that they don't have the money, time, or expertise to learn how to use a computer. But computers are not really very expensive, and the payback is potentially greater than an equal monetary value of fertilizer. The learning process will take some time, but things will be learned which will help make better decisions, so there's a payback there, too. And, as far as expertise, don't worry. It's really not very tough. I have never met anyone who was completely incapable of learning how to use a computer. In fact, the most frequent complaint is that people start using them too much.

Which brings up a good point. Keep the computer on your desk at work. Don't make the mistake of thinking you'll maximize your investment by bringing it home for the family to use. If you do that, you'll never get near the thing before everybody else goes to bed. For the purpose we're discussing, a computer is a production tool, and information is the horticultural input it provides. It's pretty hard to achieve that goal if you're watching your 12-year old writing their homework.

So, as soon as you can get around to it, go out and get a computer for you to use, and put it in your office. Not your secretary's office, either. This is not something you can delegate. You need to learn it yourself. Also, get a good one. If you don't, it'll be only a few weeks before you wish you had spent the extra few hundred bucks, and you'll end up spending it anyway sooner or later. That's just the way the system works. There are few exceptions to this rule. Ask anybody with a computer.

Most importantly, don't be afraid of the darn things. Remember the fear when taking the driver's license test when you were 16? How often do you think about that as you're tearing up the highway checking crews? Any fear of a computer will dissipate quickly, too, as familiarity increases &endash; which is exactly the argument for learning about computers now instead of later.

Besides, if you want a REAL fear, try this one. In the address book in my computer, there are more e-mail addresses for citrus growers in South Africa, New Zealand, Argentina, Brazil, and Costa Rica than there are for growers in Florida, and I've been looking hard. If they have e-mail, they also can use the Internet. Those guys are going for it. As a group, they have better access to University of Florida research information than we do. They don't sit in seminars &endash; they download information directly from the IFAS World Wide Web site, which is accessible by anyone in the entire globe free of charge. Connections to the Web cost about $20 a month &endash; even for a grower in Brazil. Imagine trying to compete with those people without being able to use fertilizer? That's the same position we'll be in if they have information, and we don't.

When organizing DISC, we have yet to find anyone who is not excited about the possibilities of Precision Agriculture once it's explained in detail. DISC's assumption is that the way in which we produce, process, pack, and market citrus will change. It appears possible to treat almost every tree in a grove separately, according to it's needs, and track the fruit from the tree all the way to the grocery store shelf. The effect of nutrients, water, and other inputs on the attributes of the fruit will be measured and reported automatically. It'll take some time, and investment, to put all this together, but DISC has already laid eyes and hands on a lot of the necessary technology, so it's mostly a matter of figuring out how to integrate things.

Growers and production managers will need to be heavily involved in the process of applying technology. It's not something that can be done without the input from those experienced people in the field. But, all that experience, talent, and knowledge will be of limited use if those people don't understand how to read and write the language of technology. Therefore, there's lots of reasons why growers and production managers should learn how to use a personal computer. DISC believes that they will, sooner or later. Therefore, we're moving forward with the assumption that eventually there will indeed be a PC on the grower's desk, and that they will use it to run their businesses more profitably.

To those who have arguments to the contrary, I would encourage you to keep an open mind, and sit back and watch the ball game for a little while. I'm confident that you will see the wisdom of adopting new technology, most probably because it will be clearly demonstrated that it's profitable, and feasible, to do so.

That is, after all, the true bottom line. I think you'll be amazed at what the future holds, and surprised that the process of moving forward will actually be a lot of fun if you approach it with the right frame of mind. The more people participate in the change process, the better off our industry will be. If you choose to join in, I suspect you'll begin to understand the excitement over what the future holds for our industry, and society.

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