Interview With An Agronomist

Members of our team were given the opportunity to sit down with an agronomist in a local Albertan community to discuss our project and their experience with fungal infections. The goal of this interview was to gain insights into the perspectives of actual individuals, moving beyond merely relying on Google searches. Specifically, we sought to understand their views on fungal infections and their impact, with a focus on the expertise of individuals within the field of agriculture. For context, the agronomist explained that a person in their role is responsible for working with farmers to determine the most effective methods to improve crop yield. An Agronomists focus changes throughout the season but they can be involved in soil sampling, weed identification, rotational plans for cropping, sales of herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides and overall advising farmers on what practices will lead to the best crop production.

“Fungus is alive and well”

We inquired about their experience dealing with crop infections and they replied with a simple “lots!” The area that this agronomist worked in is primarily irrigated and experiences elevated temperatures throughout the growing season that creates the perfect growing conditions for fungal infections to flourish. We asked about the impact of fungus infections in the area they worked to see what more information we could gather. They explained that one of the most detrimental losses to crops come from untreated fungal infections and even with treatment you will see problems. We learned that current methods to treat fungal infections are all preventative as once the infection takes hold, there is nothing that can be done. Seed treatments can only cover a certain portion of fungal pathogens and different fungal infections can present themselves through the year as the environmental conditions change. With regards to Fusarium specifically there is a very tight window of application to spray fungicides as you need to hit the flowering heat of the grain crop before the fungal spores get to the anther and infect the plant.

Fusarium infections have been prevalent in the last decade”

We questioned what happens to farmers who end up with fungus infections in their crops. They shared that there's currently no effective method to rectify the infection. Farmers can modify the settings on the harvesting equipment to process out the infected plants increasing the quality of their harvest but resulting in more losses. They also explained that if the infection is “really bad” then farmers can send their crop to a cleaner, but this is an additional cost. Different levels of crop quality will result in different market values. Overall, fungal infections will result in a cost to the farmer, there is no way to avoid it.

As we closed the interview we asked for their opinions on our proposed project and what benefit they thought it would provide the industry. They shared that they thought it would be beneficial and would primarily help reduce the guess work that comes with treating your crop for fungal infections. They also speculated that it would overall help reduce costs associated with fungal infections in crops.

The purpose of our last question was to equip us with context for the subsequent human practices we wanted to pursue for our project. Being an individual who frequently interacts with farmers in the same context we wish to do so, what could they identify as the biggest concerns farmers might raise in response to our project. They suggested that the use of the drone has become so normalized in agriculture that farmers would likely exhibit no reproach to our drone-based detection system, but would instead raise concerns over the spray. What is the sprays contents, how will we apply it to our crop, what is the most cost effective method to do so?

“[FEDDS] can help farmers make decisions”

Overall, Consulting with an individual such as an agronomist was beneficial to our project as their job focuses on how to optimize crop yield, the same overarching goal of project FEDDS. This interview offered massive insights, not only for our planned future outreach initiatives, but for the development of the project itself. This interview emphasized the importance of developing a cost-effective system that focuses on accessibility. FEDDS should be accessible and understandable for farmers, allowing for its optimum implementation. We also gained insight into how the actual issue of fungal infections are currently addressed in the industry, by whatever means a farmer determines their crop is infected. We postulated that our system could potentially provide a new method for treatment as FEDDS would be able to detect specific regions of a field that are infected, allowing those regions to be removed and prevent seed quality from decreasing and infection from spreading. This interview also reinforced the ultimate goal of the cloning in the project, to develop an adaptable system that could be modified to detect any fungal pathogen simply by swapping the nanobody domain in the fungalescence construct.

Interview with Greg Gonnet & Jeff Gonnet

Greg Gonnet & Jeff Gonnet
Greg Gonnet on left and Jeff Gonnet on right.

In the development of our project, we were driven by environmental sustainability, food security, practicality, and the beneficial impact of our project on the agricultural industry. These values guided us throughout the project's design, development, and proposed implementation.

In order to ensure our values were aligned with the values of those our project would impact the most, we consulted various stakeholders, including professionals within the agricultural industry. Most importantly, we talked to farmers! Greg Gonnet, a fourth-generation grain farmer with experience in agricultural financing, and his father, Jeff Gonnet, a retired farmer with extensive knowledge, provided us with invaluable insights. Their wealth of experience allowed us to improve upon our project and its drone application to meet the real-world needs of farmers.

“The earlier you can detect [Fusarium], the better chance you have at controlling it”

During our interview, we learned that the current detection methods and treatment options for FHB are inefficient and wasteful. Currently, farmers have no way of knowing their crop is infected with FHB until they can visibly see the signs of damage on the sick plants. At that point, the infected crop has already lost value and might not be safe for consumption. The most common way to monitor Fusarium is to send plant tissue away for testing. However, this method only provides information about a portion of the field and the results take some time to be returned to the farmer. This method can result in crop failure and loss of income for the farmers as a Fusarium infection can spread quickly. Further, since the entire field is not tested, infection hot spots can be easily missed and allowed to spread. With the current detection methods, there is no way to determine which areas of a field are infected over other areas early enough to effectively treat the crop. Our project hopes to increase the efficiency and speed of Fusarium infection detection.

“You treat the whole field… you don’t know where [Fusarium] is, so you assume it’s everywhere, whether it is or not”

We recognize that often there is a disconnect between farmers and researchers, where what is needed or how something can actually be used by a farmer and the current research developments are not aligned. By actively engaging with these experienced farmers, we sought to bridge this gap and enhance our understanding of their perspectives and concerns, ensuring that our project remains closely aligned with the needs of the agricultural community.

Greg Gonnet & Jeff Gonnet
Left to Right: Marcel Brillon, Chloe Church, Soren Skaret, Greg Gonnet, Jeff Gonnet, Rachael Rieberger, Preston Tran.

Additionally, we have provided the following transcript of the interview for convenience.

Interview with Dr. James Wright

Dr. James Wright
Dr. James Wright on the top and Neel Patel on the bottom.

Neel also had the opportunity to meet with Dr. James Wright, an Assistant Professor at the University of Alberta. Dr. Wright holds a Ph.D. in computer science, providing Neel with valuable insights into the AI aspect of our projects. Neel inquired about how we could enhance our current AI, which is based on OpenCV, to achieve a more accurate detection algorithm. Dr. Wright emphasized that the key to improvement lay in obtaining better quality data. While real-world data from the field would be ideal, it was acknowledged that acquiring such data for an infection such as fusarium could be challenging.

Dr. Wright also proposed the development of an AI system that could predict the optimal treatment techniques for infected farms based on their environmental conditions. However, he noted that pursuing this will also require additional high quality data. Key takeaways from this was that data is key to a successful AI.