Transcript for Our Farms, Our Future Podcast episode 010 - Finding a Better Way: Engineering On The Farm featuring Chris Callahan and Trevor Hardy

Chris Callahan: Sustainability to me is about balancing now with the future. Any time there is a balance there should be some measurement and some predictability. And I think, you know, our role in that — that is the field of engineering: applying science and math ethically to further society.

Mallory Daily: This is Our Farms, Our Future. A podcast by SARE, the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program. Today on the show: adapting innovation on the farm. Chris Callahan is an agricultural engineer with University of Vermont Extension. He helps farmers pinpoint energy sinks and efficiency gaps through the interpretation of the latest research and technology.

Chris Callahan: To me, that's, that's my role, to help farmers be--at least in some part--engineer.

Mallory Daily: Chris will be speaking with Trevor Hardy, manager of one of New England’s largest distributors of agricultural supplies at Brookdale Fruit Farm in Hollis, New Hampshire. His family has operated that farm for seven generations. Trevor says engineering plays a crucial role in synthesizing the newest research and technology with the diversity and complexity of farming practices on the ground.

Trevor Hardy: It's really interesting, with farming and engineering, how much the two overlap without people really recognizing it. So prior to my return back to the family business, I actually, instead of the rest of the family members that went to school for farming, I went to school for engineering and got my industrial engineering degree and started working for the Navy. Working on their process improvement on a submarine overhauls. After that, and a couple other jaunts in the private sector, knew I always wanted to come back to the farm. I worked there every day. I wasn't working in the sector anyway and took everything I learned in the engineering world and kind of applied it to the farm. And what's really interesting is when you start looking at the overall processes of farming and what you do and start jotting it down and putting some process maps to it, the same things happen every year. It's just the input and output conditions change. And it's looking at that process and managing that process and trying to break it down into big chunks that a lot of people don't step back and think about all the time. What am I really trying to do? What are the major steps or milestones that you have to hit and kind of simplify it that way, to use that as a daily decision basis?

Chris Callahan: Hmm. Yeah, it was interesting. I got into agricultural engineering or engineering on the farm really intentionally, leaving a Fortune 500 company that was working on renewable energy. It was sort of an influential paper in the journal Science that I read. It was an energy balance on the world and it sort of drove it home for me that, you know, the conversion of energy at the ground level on the farm is really a critical thing. And that's really, really what got me into it.

Trevor Hardy: That's kind of the neat things that lead us, our previous engineering paths. First thing I always wanted to work on was, what kind of got me into the irrigation world, was the biggest pain in the butt on our farm was in the springtime comes strawberry season when you had to start playing with frost protection. So growing up in a large sustained farm, you don't typically question past family practices. You are told through direction down through the hierarchy of family. And that being said, there was always a way that we set up the aluminum pipe for irrigation on our farm for frost protection. And it drove me absolutely bonkers 'cause we had about five different kinds of aluminum pipe and there was just one or two special adapter fittings that went from a weighed rain pipe to a hook and latch pipe or this or that. And then nobody could ever find anything and it was never put back where it was. And you'd spend half the day wasting time and hours trying to find those fittings and set these things up. And it was just very frustrating. And you've got five or six people helping you. And then in the middle of the night when you actually had to go out there and frost protect, you're out there with a piece of wire trying to jam the little rock or the little piece of algae that's stuck in front of the nozzle at 28 degrees, freezing your butt off, trying to save your strawberry crop. 

And, you know, after doing that for a couple of years in my high school days and beyond made you really think, "Wow, there's gotta be a better way." And that's what kind of at least started me down the irrigation path with that and the starting of our company and standardizing some of the things that we do and introducing new tools to make it better. But along those same lines, you know, all that time wasted and stuff, a lot of the engineering improvements that we started to look at on our farm, were really taking a step back and looking at the analysis of costs. Where Chris has looked at energy before, our biggest cost, other than labor, which you're never gonna get out of any farm. You just have to reduce it, but it will always be one of the biggest costs, is fuel usage. And we started looking at sustainable practices on our farm and being a large diversified fruit and vegetable farm on the vegetable side, doing a lot of, you know, conventional tillage, harrowing practices and not doing any reduced tillage. We spent a lot of time and a lot of labor prepping our fields. And, uh, it was a struggle for me to kind of get the rest of the family to look at it differently and start looking at reduced tillage. And that was partnering with NRCS and putting some of our engineering mind to work saying, you know, saying to my father and some of the other family members, we're going over this field four or five times, our soils are all compacted. I said, we gotta do this differently and look at all the fuel it's going to save. Maybe it's different in farms that aren't family-owned or -operated to make those business decisions or not, but sometimes the struggle makes it more fun. And when you get to actually try something new at the end of it and show them that, hey, that did work and we saved 400 gallons of fuel just in growing corn that year, in prepping it and getting it in the ground, that's real cash you can feel in your pocket. So that's some of the fun things about putting engineering to work on the farm.

Chris Callahan: I love the point you made about that one phrase. There must be a better way. I know when I get a phone call or an email from someone and, you know, it's an inquiry about doing something different and they include that as: you know, I've been doing "X" and "Y" has been happening and I really want "Z" to happen, there must be a better way. Right? And so I just love it. It's a great way to open the conversation about what exactly the problem is. What the pain point is and where can we go. Do you think that pursuit of the better is a big part of why you're in engineering?

Trevor Hardy: Um, possibly. I think where I'm in engineering and how it kind of came to be as a kid growing up is they'd always break stuff on the farm, quite honestly. And I like to be a hands on guy and fixing things. But where our farm, and I guess that kind of was some of the heritage with our farm and my family being kind of innovators and leaders in agriculture. We were actually one of the first firms to ever plant a dwarfing rootstock apple tree in the country and looking at these new high-density plannings. For us to innovate and stay ahead of the curve, there's a lot of math and science that goes around that. And now I look at how we're helping other farmers and educating them in the same way with our supplies business and teaching them about these different things and new irrigation methods. So a lot of that came from us learning in the beginning and trying to figure out a way to do it. And then taking that method and trying to put some process behind it to make it so it wasn't so laborious or so hard to do. 

And nowadays you can't have modern agriculture without engineering. It's just, it's not possible. When we go from using apples as a reference, something I'm really familiar with, old standard trees that 20-foot-by-30-foot in the row to taking that plant density and putting trees two-and-a-half feet apart with 12-foot row widths. The architecture of a system that you need to maintain a crop density that that tight, you need water infrastructure need a trellis infrastructure to hold it up. You got to have different nutrient management, you have to manage your soils in between the rows differently. And then we've gotten to this point where we've got automated picking platforms that drive, steer and level themselves through those rows to reduce our bruise points on the apples when we harvest them. So to get to that level in that type of precision agriculture, you couldn't have done it without an engineering degree. And that's where I think a lot of the growth in agriculture is coming from help from folks like Chris and myself who are taking an engineering perspective or a systematic approach at looking at how to adapt to these new systems on the farm. There can be a lot of great research done and without extension and university research and SARE grants and things that NRCS is doing is great. It's all good research based stuff, but it's a totally different aspect when you start to scale something like that. And there's a lot of different processes that have to be ironed out and different problems that arise when you take something from a small-scale and put it into production.

Chris Callahan: Hmm. Yeah. Oftentimes I feel like I'm serving as an interpreter, you know, so not necessarily creating the new knowledge, but there's work that's been done maybe a decade ago or more than a decade ago, you know? Decades ago. Centuries ago. And trying to use engineering and science to see how it applies to a particular apple, you know, a particular problem that a particular farm has and really just using the engineering discipline as an interpretation platform.

Trevor Hardy: Yeah, I mean, there's a lot of different tools that we're familiar with and a lot of that is just making an educational way to present that, that people can use it everyday. And sometimes through that education in our learning, you kind of have these epiphany moments through us as engineers. Working with other farmers where, you get that one time where, oh, you both stumble on something at the same time. You're like, "Aha!" We, we know how to fix that. And working on that kind of stuff is always satisfying. But now there's a lot of change in the agricultural industry, specifically where Chris and I are, which is in, in the Northeast region, where there's a lot of new farmers, and I see that a lot with our supplies business. You don't have the legendary longterm family farms where I come from. But you get people that are coming from the finance sector, from all sorts of different places saying, "I want to get into farming now." And they come at it sometimes with a totally different mentality than what we're used to dealing with. So not to say people are aren't process-oriented, but it's just that they're approaching the problem a different way than what we're used to in dealing with traditional agriculture. Yeah. So it makes it really interesting in explaining things differently to different clientele or different levels of farming within the industry. Certainly the small farm organic growth market is in New England and that creates a smaller-scale problems for us to deal. Yeah.

Chris Callahan: It's interesting whenever I talk to somebody and tell them about what I do, I'm always interested to hear what people's perceptions are of engineering and engineers. When you start describing the work we do and the degree of, you know, human interaction and working with people, it's always sort of mind blowing to them. You know, that, oh, that, that sounds like a lot of people work for an engineer, you know, but it really is, right?

Trevor Hardy: It's a lot of people working. The best part is, it's fieldwork. It's tough work. It's not sitting behind a desk doing number crunching everyday or designs. You're actually out there getting your hands dirty and in trying different things and working with the people on their farms. And that's where the different demographics of customers that we deal with or farmers in New England can go from some people growing one or two crops on a large-scale to some large-scale growers growing over 50 or 60 different types of fruits or vegetables or varieties of things. And then, you get a small-scale guy who's got 200, and he's not looking to make the largest quantity, but they're there. Everybody strives for quality. But there's different levels of perception of what has to go in to get quality. We have quite a following in the Northeast of giant pumpkin growers where some traditional farmers will look at these guys who completely obsess over their plants and they put all this energy in around this one plant to make one, 2,000-pound pumpkin. And you really step back and think about that for a little bit. If we could afford the labor to take as much care of that one pumpkin plant to grow all of our crops that these guys are doing, it'd be quite an outcome. But that's the level that, the commitment that some of these people are growing towards and they all have a systematic approach on how they're doing this. And when you get your farming audience starting to look at all the different nuances of what it takes to grow a particular crop and then they're starting to focus on the process, that's something where when they've gone beyond the introductory level and they want help doing that. That's something that the engineering tools are designed for and getting people to look at.

Chris Callahan: You had talked about the variety of the diversity of farmers that you get to work with. And I'm in the same boat. It is, it's everything from just an open-ended, in my case, open-ended question about what can I do for storage, cold storage to, you know, showing up for a farm visit and the farmer brings out her notebook planning for cold storage and she, you know, she got all her crop history, storage and sales history. And she's just, she started drafting a floor plan, you know, and so it's kind of all over the map and it's really fun to just meet people where they are and you know, start that journey together and deliver what knowledge we can and tools. You mentioned before that we have a certain toolkit that not everybody really worries about or knows about. You know, it's fun to apply it with people.

Trevor Hardy: Yeah. In some of those things like talking about cold storage and stuff, the New England markets typically in the apple world focused on 15-bushel, wooden apple harvest bins, with a set footprint and a set size. And all these guys are used to using that. And with food safety changing and stuff, people are looking at plastic. Well, it even became an epiphany moment to the plastic bin manufacturers when they all have--there's two or three of them out there--different sizes or different footprints. And I looked at it from an engineer's perspective when I was discussing what type of plastic bins I wanted to get in between my father and my brother. And I says, "Well, we want the bin that has the exact same footprint as a pallet." And they said, "Well, why is that?" I says, "Because it standardizes the shape of everything that we're putting into our coolers for longterm storage, if you're gonna have your harvested fruit in a bin and then you're going to have your palletized fruit that's already on a box and a pallet ready to ship out." And sometimes it takes that simple of a design characteristic from an engineering mind to make them think, "Oh my gosh, I never thought of it that way." And that's sometimes the epiphany moments we can have that are so simple. But unless you step back and look at that process, you're standardizing a tool to make your life easier, that's where with storage or even with irrigation, where I'm quite familiar on the fruit and vegetable side where we get a lot of high rotations and varying crops in New England and growers are always constantly rotating their places. So we're taking their tools like their pressure regulators or their main lines or their headers and standardizing the size and standardizing the shape. Yeah, it might cost a little bit more money, but their ability to flex and move around in those fields and set them up a lot quicker with a standardized tool versus something custom, just built for that tool, affords them flexibility and saves them time and schedule.

Chris Callahan: And questioning old standards, you know, so 15-bushel? Why was it 15-bushels? You know, why did it have the dimensions it had? I'm sure there were good reasons, but those reasons might no longer exist. You know, so questioning that and applying whatever latest knowledge we have to this process.

Trevor Hardy: And that's where it's really interesting. I mean, we use engineering now in so many different places, but within agriculture there's almost two paths right now. There's existing growers who are looking to innovate and improve and try something new. And then the newbies are people that aren't from that walk of life that are just coming into it. And it's amazing how the questions that both of them are asking and a certain level overlap. You know, we're always constantly innovating and sometimes the newbie people are up on some new soil health techniques or some new planning methods. Or something more so than some of your traditional farms that have been there for years. Or then vice versa. There's a lot of people that are out there trying new grants. Like, you had mentioned before something that they're looking at a cover crop differently now or they're looking into harvest method or a potassium level in tomatoes or something. And they're looking at it now, but maybe a researcher or an extension person had looked at that 30- or 40-years ago and they just don't know it.

Chris Callahan: Right.

Trevor Hardy: And there's a lot of improvement in accessing that kind of information. And we kinda, as engineers, in working with everybody act as the in-between for that.

Chris Callahan: It's interesting, you know, the availability of information, of course, is a major shift. There's so much information available and yeah, again, the interpretation role. If I've got five different opinions from YouTube, Google, fill-in-the-blank, right? What, you know, what makes, what's the right answer?

Trevor Hardy: And that's where we deal with the fun thing. We both do a lot of work within Vermont called this vegetable and berry growers listserv. And it's an open platform where growers can ask a question to all these other growers and of what they like and what they think could be improved or a problem that they're having. They'll get 20 or 30 different answers and everybody will reply to them. It's interesting to see certain people's perspective because as they reply, they might not in all the replies have the right answers, but they're also educating themselves in the term of that reply. And that's where I think Chris and I sit in back, too, sometimes putting engineering knowledge to some of those replies might put a different light on looking at them. 'Cause sometimes a problem that people think they're having and they ask other people that have the same problem, well, it can be solved with a different application or a different tool and make that problem completely go away that people just aren't thinking about.

Chris Callahan: Right. Yeah. The listserv is a great example of, you know, what's become really sort of fashionable. You know, it was crowdsourcing before crowdsourcing was even a thing. People learning from their peers. And that's another really amazing resource, as far as I'm concerned. When thinking about what resources people have to apply engineering on the farm, I always encourage farmers to visit peers.

Trevor Hardy: Yeah.

Chris Callahan: You know, and walk around in the downtime and see what your peers are doing that are just different. And it's not better. It's not worse. It's different. And let's explore that and understand why it's different. Why did they choose that versus something else?

Trevor Hardy: And that's something we both like doing is those grower meetings or twilight meetings or education sessions and on-farm things. I travel all around New England, New York, and do a lot of them. And you do, too, Chris. And I think going to the farm and getting the people out there is totally different when you're feeling or seeing these things in person and touching them with your hands than that application that people are picking up from the listserv or from a YouTube video because it's that one thing when you're visually witnessing something that's that "Aha" moment that you might not see that really helps educate people. And if they're going to the meeting, they're committed to making that change, which is a really good thing that I think I like to see with those types of events.

Chris Callahan: Yeah. You know, the other thing I was thinking about ahead of the chat is the role of engineering in sustainability and the role of engineering in sustainable agriculture. And, you know, sustainability to me is about balancing now with the future. And anytime there's a balance, there should be some measurement and some predictability. I think our role in that is, that is the field of engineering is, you know, applying science and math ethically to further society. And I've never really thought about how engineering doesn't relate to sustainable agriculture. It just, to me, seems like a natural connection.

Trevor Hardy: Yeah. And what's really neat about that sustainability line is we've got a lot of farmers in the past that are really good at looking at their processes and writing down numbers. And there's a lot of good historical records, but sometimes it takes a different point of view from an engineer to maybe analyze that data a little bit differently.

Chris Callahan: Yeah. Sometimes engineering is just being a pain in the neck and asking the question and digging into the data.

Trevor Hardy: But the biggest thing is the data, too.

Chris Callahan: Yeah.

Trevor Hardy: I mean, there's so much that a lot of us, that we're growing now, just even macro-data before micro-data.

Chris Callahan: Yeah. That's another big change, isn't it?

Trevor Hardy: In getting electronic tools or even manual paper tools for those that don't want to do the route where you're planning 20 or 30 different things, just keeping those records and doing that and looking at the data or irrigating based on soil moisture or planning based on growing degree days, irrespective of what the two week forecast says it's going to do or something that you historically did. Putting some data to some of those decisions is really changing the mark for a lot of people.

Chris Callahan: And getting the data to a point where it can really be used to inform a decision. I mean, one of the best, best bits of feedback I ever got from workshop from a farmer is, "I didn't get into farming to do math, Chris!"

Trevor Hardy: It's amazing how much we use math and that's one of the biggest eyeopening approaches. I was working with one of our extension agents in sprayer calibration. So, George Hamilton, who is our county extension agent, he laughs at me. We just purchased a new sprayer on the farm and it was in the same tractor, same model sprayer, same exact tires and everything. And he says, "We're going to calibrate these sprayers and make sure they're doing the same that they are supposed to be." And putting that engineering process of sprayer calibration through the one that was five years old and the brand new one. Well, come to find out the brand new one was more out of whack than the old one. And we couldn't figure out why. And it took a process approach and then asking the grower, or in this case, my grand-uncle, "How are you so on with this?" He says, "Well, I wash out my nozzles all the time. I know what speed I'm at and I know how many gallons per acre." And then we ran through the process and the math on the new one was off. And I'm sitting there with the extension guy, too, both scratching our heads and we're trying to identify what the difference is and the older tractor had five years worth of tire wear on it and the tires were half an inch shorter from being worn compared to the new ones that were taller. So it was the speed that was throwing the whole thing off based on tire wear. And my great uncle had calibrated himself so much to that equipment that he knew exactly what he was doing to put out 50 gallons an acre. And he was going two-tenths of a mile an hour faster for the more worn out tire. Did he tell us this? No, but we went through the whole processed approach and that's one of those things you find out at the end. That's just kind of, wow. That's weird.

Chris Callahan: What a great story. Yeah. Self-correcting. Humans are funny that way.

Trevor Hardy: And it's amazing how sometimes even with heritage now, my great-uncle, mind you, when we were doing this, was 89-years-old at the time. So there was some history there. And he says, "You guys don't know what the heck you're doing." And he was spot on. So sometimes even with that history of the older and wiser relatives of our farm, they are right. It's just translating that data and what they're right in their perception to functional numbers that you can make a decision on.

Chris Callahan: Yeah.

Mallory Daily: That’s it from these two engineers. You were listening to Trevor Hardy with the farm supplies division of Brookdale Fruit Farm in Hollis, New Hampshire, and Chris Callahan of University of Vermont Extension. As always, we’ll link to more info about their projects in our show notes. This show was produced in The Pod at KOPN 89.5 FM in Columbia, MO. Tim Pilcher is our producer, and I’m your host Mallory Daily. You can subscribe to our show on your favorite podcast platform, like iTunes or Stitcher. We’re releasing two new shows each month. Our Farms, Our Future is presented by SARE - the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program.SARE invests in groundbreaking research and education projects in sustainable agriculture. Grants are available to producers, scientists, educators, graduate students and others in the agricultural community. Learn more at SARE is supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this recording are those of the participants and do not necessarily reflect the view of the USDA or SARE. Thank you so much for listening. We'll catch you next time.