Nova Scotia apple growing goes high-tech with bar code data collection

Researchers in Kentville are throwing away their pens and picking up bar code scanners to track data in an apple orchard.

Atlantic Food and Horticulture Research Centre working on program to collect and analyze apple data

Computer science student Vinetha Jagadeesan scans a bar code of one of the 2,400 trees in the Apple Biodiversity Collection. The bar codes help scientists keep track and better organize the data they collect on the apples. (Jane Sponagle/CBC)

Researchers in Kentville are throwing away their pens and picking up bar code scanners to track data in an apple orchard.

As part of a Dalhousie University project at the Atlantic Food and Horticulture Research Centre, computer science student Vinetha Jagadeesan is creating a program to collect, compile and analyze data from an apple orchard featuring more than 1,000 varieties.

Each tree is assigned a bar code to make data collection more efficient as researchers try to develop the tastiest commercial apple variety in Nova Scotia that is also resistant to pest and disease.

The varieties at the Apple Biodiversity Collection — the orchard using the bar codes for the first time — include heirloom and commercial varieties as well as wild apples from central Asia and new varieties being developed by Canadian breeders.

The first harvest from the orchard will happen this fall and lead researcher Sean Myles predicts there will be more than 250,000 apples to analyze.

"We have 2,400 trees and they have 100 apples each. That's a quarter million pieces of fruit. What do you do with a quarter million pieces of fruit that you want to measure?" he asked.

'You need a Walmart-like system'

"You certainly don't write everything down by hand or look at them each individually. You need a Walmart-like system of getting all the information from the field to the database."

Myles says the purpose of the research program is to accelerate the improvement of apple breeding. He deals with a lot of genetic information and data.

Handling that data is where Jagadeesan comes in. Her favourite part of computer science is database management — so she'll take all the raw data and put it into a database.

Being in the field is new for the 20-year-old student, who is on exchange from India with the Mitacs internship program.

"This is the first time I'm actually getting to see an apple tree because we don't have all these back in India," she said. "Back home I just sit at the computer and work, and that's it. This is so interesting."

Jagadeesan says she is planning to come back to Canada for graduate studies once she finishes her undergraduate degree next year.

'Why is there a computer scientist out in the field?'

One example of how the team uses barcodes to collect data is in tracking how many green aphids might be on a tree. They count the number of aphids, scan the unique barcode for the tree — which is on a small post next to the tree — and then scan a barcode on a sheet of paper that corresponds to the number of aphids.

Using bar codes is more efficient and cuts down on errors, says Myles.

Myles says some of the data collected from the apple trees includes when they flower. He says you don't want a tree that flowers too early in Nova Scotia in case of frost.

"Often people think, 'Why is there a computer scientist out in the field hanging out in an apple orchard?'" he says.

"These are precisely the people we need in agriculture. There are computer scientists who can think about how to most efficiently collect these data, organize these data and maximize the use of the data."

This fall, the apples will be collected into bins with a barcode that matches the tree they came from. The fruits will be run through a machine that automatically takes a series of measurements including the apple's weight, firmness, sweetness, acidity and juiciness.