Harvesting Technology

State agriculture departments rely on notebooks, PDAs and Web databases to track everything from animals and pesticides to disease outbreaks and bioterrorism.

The recent “mad cow” scare in the United States added urgency to Idaho State Veterinarian Dr. Clarence Siroky’s push to give the agriculture industry a technological boost. In December 2003, after the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) diagnosed a Washington state dairy cow with mad cow disease, the agency dispatched investigators, including Siroky, to hunt for 80 cattle that had arrived from Canada with the infected cow.

The search proved difficult. Without a central database documenting the animals’ trail from feedlots and cattle dealers to farms, Siroky was forced to do detective work. The cattle had entered the country with ear tags and identification numbers, but the numbers weren’t always recorded when the cattle were moved to different locations.

Siroky interviewed cattle dealers, who told him the cows could have gone to six different farms. He even inspected 5,000 cows on one farm, but results were inconclusive because some of the animals had lost their ID tags.

In February 2004, having failed to locate 52 of the 80 cows, USDA ended the investigation. It stated that the probability of an outbreak of the debilitating brain disease and the risk to the U.S. population were low. “Had this been some other disease, we’d have been in a whole lot of trouble,” Siroky says.

To prevent disease outbreaks, whether from natural causes or bioterrorism, the government has embarked on a national animal identification project that will let authorities track animals suspected of being infected within 48 hours. Siroky is leading the pilot project, which will implant wireless radio frequency identification (RFID) tags in the animals. If successful, the program will serve as a model for every state to emulate.

“[RFID] is probably as revolutionary to agriculture as the bar code technology was to the retail industry,” says Siroky, who also serves as the animal industry division administrator for Idaho’s Department of Agriculture.

Embracing E-Government

Like other government entities, state agriculture departments embrace e-government to help them protect the welfare of livestock, land and water resources, and to safeguard the public by regulating pesticides and agricultural businesses. Because state agriculture departments are small agencies, they’re often low on the priority list for state IT spending, according to some state agriculture department managers.

Despite the constraints, agriculture agencies haven’t stopped pursuing IT projects. In Maryland and North Dakota, for example, agriculture employees still must file paper reports, but they have begun to automate their business operations through the use of notebook PCs, personal digital assistants (PDAs) and online databases.

“Departments of agriculture typically are the last to get funding and the last to be considered for statewide e-commerce initiatives,” says Stuart Edmondson, chief technology officer of Kelly Registration Systems, which offers PDA and Web software for state applications such as online pesticide registration and fee payments. “They’re just left to do what they can on their own.”

The federal government helps fund some state agriculture IT efforts. In fact, USDA is providing $21 million to pay for the national animal identification project. In addition, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently gave North Dakota $10,000 to subsidize the state’s continuing use of PDAs in regulating pesticides.

PDAs to the Rescue

State agriculture departments are in charge of enforcing regulations on the sale and use of pesticides, making sure pesticide users, such as pest control companies, are trained and licensed to use the products. They also ensure that chemical companies and retail stores that sell pesticides are up to date with their product registrations.

In the past, agriculture staffers from Maryland and North Dakota checked store shelves and found prohibited pesticides, such as DDT, which was banned 33 years ago because it posed a health risk to humans and the environment. Both states now use PDAs and bar code scanners to speed their search for unregistered pesticides.

In Maryland, pesticide staffers would download the latest listings from the state’s database onto their notebook PCs, but the inspections could take up to three hours per store. Now, using PDAs and bar code scanners, which check the products’ UPC codes or EPA registration numbers, the investigations take 10 to 15 minutes, says Dennis Howard, acting chief of the Maryland Department of Agriculture’s Pesticide Regulation Section. When the inspectors return to the office, they can upload the information stored on their PDA to the agriculture department’s servers, he says. Howard’s staff has used the technology for the past three years.

Before implementing the PDA and bar code technology, North Dakota couldn’t even attempt to check unregistered pesticides, recalls Jim Gray, the state’s pesticide registration coordinator. With 8,500 pesticides registered in the state, his six pesticide field workers would have had to carry a thick stack of paper listing every registration.

In the two years since deploying this technology, North Dakota has discovered 107 unregistered pesticides in the 138 retail stores it has investigated. As a result, pesticide companies had to pay registration and late fees, earning the state $45,000. “Since the lease payments for the six PDAs were $15,000, it was a good return on investment for the taxpayers,” Gray points out.

Both Maryland and North Dakota are planning to install more technology in the future. Maryland recently took advantage of a free service offered by Kelly Registration Services and put its pesticide registration database online, drastically reducing the number of calls to the agriculture department, according to Howard.

Maryland, which pays for its technology through state funding and EPA grants, also arms its inspectors with Global Positioning System (GPS) units to help them in their investigations of pesticide-misuse complaints. Sometimes there is a dispute among homeowners over pesticides used in backyards. In such instances, the GPS units enable investigators to pinpoint and record the locations they are examining.

The investigations generate a lot of paperwork, which the state hopes to digitize in the future, Howard says. Inspectors are testing all-in-one printer/scanner/copier devices, and are saving information on CDs.

North Dakota, which leased the PDAs for two years, recently returned the devices when it ran out of funding for the program. But the state agriculture department’s $10,000 grant will allow the pesticide division to lease them again. As part of the grant, Gray plans to link the PDAs to several of the state’s back-end databases in an effort to eliminate paper.

In the past, if inspectors found unregistered products, they issued paper violations onsite. Then, at headquarters, a state agriculture staffer had to retype the violation to enter it into the state database.

“I would like to create a seamless environment in which an inspector would conduct an investigation, capture the information in a PDA, fill out an electronic inspection form and leave the inspected party with a hard copy,” Gray explains. “Then the inspector would send the information electronically into our database.”

Leading the Pack

South Dakota is further ahead than many states, making most of its agriculture information accessible online. The state has even developed an online version of its product registration system, which lets chemical companies renew licenses and upload their latest labels with instructions on how to use the product and emergency information in case of spills. Allowing chemical companies to upload their latest pesticide labels saves time for state agriculture workers and also gives everyone quick access to the information.

“A chemical spill can kill people, make them sick or negatively affect crops and livestock,” says Scott Olson, vice president and senior software engineer for BPro, which was hired by the state to build its custom software. “If someone has a spill or exposure, he or she calls the state, which references this information in real time without needing to go to file cabinets to retrieve paper-based records. The old system didn’t allow someone to quickly access that information.”

One agriculture database also helps with homeland security by providing federal authorities with information on companies licensed to sell chemicals and the sprayers who buy those chemicals. Because some fertilizer or pesticide products can be used for nefarious purposes, the information is important to the country’s security, Olson says.

At month’s end, South Dakota can use its databases to generate digital reports and send them straight to the federal government, he says. This will enable the state to manage a tremendous amount of information more efficiently than in the past, when all that information was filed on paper.

Working Together

Often, agriculture departments require customized software to meet their state’s unique needs. However, as the recent mad cow scare has shown, sometimes a one-size-fits-all solution is the best way to deal with a national issue.

Three years ago, the National Institute for Animal Agriculture, a nonprofit organization in Bowling Green, Ky., created a task force comprising federal, state and private industry groups to explore a national animal ID plan to help prevent a disease outbreak, such as foot-and-mouth disease, and ensure food safety. Their goal is to use technology to help authorities track down suspected animals and trace their previous whereabouts within 48 hours.

With funding from the federal government, Idaho’s Siroky is working with four technology companies to develop such an animal ID system. The system will use the Internet to speed the exchange of health certificates among the states.

Currently, if an animal is moving out of state, an accredited veterinarian or private practitioner must fill out a health certificate for the animal, keep a copy for Idaho, mail another copy to the state vet at the animal’s destination and send yet another copy of the certificate with the animal. It sometimes takes 30 days to process the papers—not fast enough if a crisis erupts, Siroky points out.

If the Idaho test project is successful, Utah and Nevada, followed by the rest of the states, will implement the system. Siroky says the goal is to have the system up and running in four years.

“People in agriculture are hugely independent,” Siroky says, “so you see very few vertically integrated approaches. This is the turning point for animal agriculture to enter the information age, which the rest of society has endorsed for the last 10 to 15 years.”

Big Ideas on a Small Budget

Got a shoestring budget, small workforce and very few IT staffers? Don’t let that stop you from pursuing technology projects, advises Jim Gray, pesticide registration coordinator for North Dakota’s department of agriculture.

Follow his tips:

1. Review your current technology with an IT team composed of various division heads to give an honest assessment of the agency’s IT capabilities.

2. After identifying projects, run a test project in one department to evaluate cost savings and more efficient use of employees’ time.

3. If hiring additional IT staff isn’t realistic, look for funds in the agency’s yearly budget to pay for contractors or seek grant money from government partners. Because North Dakota’s agriculture department helps the federal government keep track of pesticides, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency gave the state a technology grant.

4. Make existing staff the de facto IT staff. Train state employees to become experts in one area of technology, troubleshoot for the entire agency and train others. Gray is the agency’s expert on personal digital assistants; other staff received extensive training in geographic information systems or Microsoft’s PowerPoint software.

Oct 30 2006