Intel uses blockchain to keep Oregon blueberries fresh
At a blueberry farm in the Willamette Valley in Silverton, Oregon, the mid-August fruit hangs heavy.
The berries are fat, and as you eat them right off the bush, there's none of the usual tartness associated with U-picking in Oregon. These blueberries burst easily in the mouth and are thick with sugar.
However, due to supply chain logistics, they're not the perfect blueberry. By the time they were picked, sorted, packaged and shipped to stores, they would be mush. These berries will be picked by a machine (which the farmer buys new for $240,000) and frozen for smoothies or juice.
This is Sinn Farm, a family farm with 150 acres of blueberries. Darwin Sinn and his brother Kenton run the farm and have embraced Intel's supply chain technology as a way to make sure more of their crop makes it to the correct markets unspoiled.
State of berries
Berries are crucial to the Oregon economy. In 2018, Oregon produced 131 million pounds of blueberries, ahead of the next nearest state, Washington (127 million pounds). Others, such as Georgia, produce half as much and have the threat of frost in springtime. British Columbia is a significant challenger to Oregon, because the weak Canadian dollar means they can flood the U.S. market with competitively priced fruit.
However, blueberries are delicate. If you want to eat them fresh, whether they are being trucked to Portland or airfreighted to Tokyo, they must travel quickly and stay between 32 F and 36 F.
Intel has been working on a pilot program with Curry & Company, the processing plant that handles Sinn Farm's fruit. The program was to evaluate the value of tracking real-time location, temperature and humidity of a fresh food product like blueberries. Starting in July 2018, Intel added plastic tags the size of a credit card to the flats of berries right at the farm. The tags had sensors for location, temperature and humidity and took readings every few minutes. Other sensors could easily be added, such as for tilt and shock. The sensors send data to a robust hub, about the size of a thick smartphone.
The data allowed everyone involved to follow the fruit throughout production until the end customer received it. All data was shared to stakeholders using blockchain. This summer the pilot continued, and Intel was ready to come out this August and declare it a success.
Internet of fruit
Laura Rumbel works at Intel's industrial solutions division in the Internet of Things (IoT) business unit as the consumer experience enabling director.
She summed up blockchain in a few words: "In blockchain, the data doesn't live on one computer or in one centralized area. It is a shared database, distributed amongst many systems. That means that you can't ever override or change the data. So, it's great for things like medical data, or any kind of data that you're really trying to establish ultimate trust around."
Rumbel explained that Curry & Company's biggest issue was establishing a location that the fruit came from. "Where was this berry picked? And then what was the temperature and humidity of that berry throughout the entire processing life cycle of the berry?"
Because berries freeze at 26 F, the Curry warehouses strive to keep them at 32 F to 34 F throughout the cycle.
The fruit may be warm to its core if picked on a 90-degree day. It is brought into the warehouse and allowed to cool for a day, then sorted.
Some of this work hasn't been taken over by software yet. Workers shake berries into machines, where cameras help identify the green berries and humans stand next to conveyor belts picking out small and unripe ones. This is minimum wage, seasonal work, almost exclusively done by LatinX people. After the fruit is weighed into plastic clamshells and packed onto flats, cold air is blown over the berries under a large tarp. This gets the temperature down to around 32 F ready for the refrigerated truck trailers to take the berries to market.
Having sensors on the fruit bins or flats allows everyone on the network to see any change in near real time.
The same applies to tilt and shock measurement. Too much sudden moving around means a flat was dropped or fell over as a truck turned a corner, and some of it might be damaged.
Intel already has the Intel Connected Logistics Platform hardware and software for other industries. Now they are testing it with berries and blockchain. Rumbel said Intel linked its ICLP to Intel's blockchain Sawtooth technology. Neither Sinn nor Curry use blockchain right now, but after the test, they are very interested.
On her laptop, Rumbel showed a dummy version because to set up a blockchain "takes a tremendous amount of data actually to keep it afloat and to keep it working effectively. But this is a great facsimile," she said of the mock dashboard.
A shipping manager might have access to the tool and see less data than someone at Intel running the network, and perhaps more than a farmer. Everything is customizable to how much data people can digest. There is a minute of latency, so the data captured appears on the dashboards of whoever needs it in almost real-time.
The gateway device can handle up to 50 tags. The gateway captures the data and pushes up to the cloud using the 3G network, with 2G as a fallback, since it doesn't need a lot of bandwidth. 4G is just not available in certain rural areas.
Sinn Farm has been in business since the late 1980s. Darwin and Kenton Sinn's grandfather moved here from Illinois in 1957 and farmed "midwestern style," but it was their father and his brother who turned to berries.
Darwin and Ken are not young enough to be digital natives, but they are at least Laptopians. There's no big command center in the farmhouse they say because the business can all be run from a laptop.
"Having this kind of technology can really help small farmers because you not only have the information, but you're actually doing it much more efficiently than maybe the traditional way of gathering information," said Darwin on a tour of the farm. "It's continuous tracking, not just milestone tracking, so it's like having your eyes on your blueberries the entire journey."
Aaron Ensign, president of Curry & Company, gave an example of a benefit. If a trailer of blueberries was headed to Dallas, but there was a problem with the "reefer" (refrigerator) truck, they would know right away and could divert it to Denver where it would still be fresh enough to be sold.
Standing on the edge of a blueberry field, he talked about the food safety scares where it's difficult to trace a batch of, say, bad Romaine lettuce back to its original farm.
"These things get broadcast out there and they're devastating to farmers. That whole region was devastated because all of the product was taken off the shelf and wasted or left in the fields to rot," Ensign said. "With a system like Intel has here with blockchain . . . you can react immediately, and then nearly everyone involved in that blockchain network would have access to that data. That's huge."
Ensign warned of how devastating it could be if there were ever a health issue with Oregon blueberries, how the news would spread globally and damage the brand. Any way that enables immediate tracking and fixing of a problem would be a worth it for his company to pay for.
"If it was broadcast out that Oregon blueberries had a hazard, that's devastating, because we can't stop the ripening process. We can try to slow it down. All of that becomes waste. So, with the ability to utilize data that you can access in minutes, you can target that grower down to their field and a time it was harvested, and zero right in on that."
Rumbel of Intel added, "We're a technology company and there's lots of PhDs around our company. But we know that the people using this don't have PhDs. So, it was really important to make it simple. And because it could be the farmer, it could be someone in the distribution center that's a warehouse worker, so it had to be easy, or it wouldn't be good enough."
Intel officials did not say who would pay for the service, nor what it would cost. So far, the pilot had not cost Darwin Sinn or his family anything, and they use their own computers and phones to monitor the situation. A smartphone can interact with the tags anywhere in the supply chain, making it easy for any stakeholder to join in.
Future farmers of the one world order
Looking at the Sinn brothers, Ensign said, "These guys are young, forward-
thinking farmers that are all over technology. But in general, there's a resistance to technology and the cost of it or the participation in it. If you're thinking about American farming, it's about trust, honor and integrity. So anytime we can incorporate technology that supplements that, that's huge."
He added that this type of blockchain monitoring of the food supply could help put a dent in world hunger. The proper monitoring of temperature and other variables helps prevent waste.
It could appeal to consumers too. Today, a consumer reads labels, but in the future, they might scan a food item with their smartphone to find its exact provenance.
"People are drawn to non-GMO, fair trade and organic," Ensign said. People are going to look for products that have the Intel Blockchain Inside, or some aspect that identifies as blockchain because they'll be able to use their smartphone and pull down whatever data the consumer allowed to access."
Curry & Company handles more than 20 varietals of blueberry from June to August.
The company air ships to Korea, Japan, Indonesia, Thailand, Europe and Dubai. In a controlled environment, a fresh berry can last up to six weeks. With good air circulation at 36 degrees Fahrenheit, a berry's journey usually lasts about two weeks.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.