Partners in the Spotlight: Dr. Ines Hanrahan, PhD. (Orchard of the Future)

March 27, 2023
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In our series ‘Partners in the spotlight,’ we shine a light on one of our NLWorks partners who works hard to create business with impact. This time, we introduce Dr. Ines Hanrahan, Ph.D., who is the Executive Director of the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission (WTFRC).

The WTFRC is a grower-funded organization in the state of Washington (US). The tree fruit growers fund research in order to stay innovative and ahead of trends and remain competitive. Established by the Washington legislature in 1969 to “promote and carry on research and administer specific industry service programs, which will or may benefit the planting, production, harvesting, handling, processing or shipment of tree fruit of this state”. The focus of WTFRC is to bring technological advancements to orchards.

Orchard of the Future is part of the WTFRC. Tell us a bit about this initiative.

“Two years ago we created the Orchard of the Future collaboration because we realized that in the past it was only possible to fund a scientist for a couple of years on a specific topic and to have a good outcome. In terms of technology integration and bringing this to orchards, this is often not enough and too narrow of a focus. We also want more sustainable production, maximizing yields and reducing food losses.

My role is to help the growers prioritize their research needs and to help them develop short, medium, long term plans to achieve those goals. To use the money in the best possible way to create solutions for them, to remain in business, and have thriving businesses. Ultimately that’s the goal.

The Orchard of the Future initiative provided us with this as it allowed us to adopt a modern approach by pooling resources that allow us to work on problems that affect people all over the world. This new science-based cooperative approach allowed us to connect parties and allow commercial companies to work in close cooperation with the grower community. The Netherlands is a really good partner in this because of the strong agricultural focus and the strong emphasis on technology and technology creation. This is a great fit for both parties.”

What societal challenge does the consortium address?

“The consortium wants to ensure that the growers of tree fruit can remain in business. This is important for society because we want to make sure that we have safe food production systems that are sustainable. At the same time, we need to create interesting and challenging jobs for the workforce of the future. A lot of young people are interested in sustainability and technology and we want to show that they can have very fulfilling careers that line up with their own life goals.

One main focus we have to achieve this is to try and automate spraying. Even though most of the chemicals we use nowadays are not highly dangerous to humans anymore, there is still a risk, and we want to take people out of harm’s way. There are also many repetitive tasks in our sector in which people can get injured if they do them over and over again. These repetitive tasks often lead to sprains and contusions.  Using some automation can help workers in the orchards stay healthy and do this job for a long time.”

What are the most important lessons for you and the consortium so far?

“We had to spend some time pulling together as a team. We started this consortium during the pandemic. Building relationships online is fine, but it is not the same as building them in real life. From last year (2022), we were able to have more face-to-face interactions, which helps to create a more meaningful program. We can now do in-person exchange programs with students, scientists and growers. We are now really accelerating and that’s exciting!”

Which projects are currently running?

“We have 2 scientific projects and 3 business projects up and running, plus a student exchange program. The student exchange program starts this year (2023), with a graduate student from Oregon State University going to Wageningen University & Research. So they can work with us and experience what it is like to work in this field. But the overall vision is to have students travel both ways. We’ve applied for grant funding for a big project that is related to people traveling and are hoping to get funding to do more great things. We have also created a logo and a website that will go live this year to help spread the message and bring in more partners and more focus.”

Tell us more about the cultivation business you and your husband have.

“We have a second-generation tree food orchard in the Yakima Valley. Here we grow cherries, apples, and pears. My husband manages the operation, but we are both partners in this.

Recently my husband and another grower were in Berlin for Fruit Logistica, when they decided to do a layover in the Netherlands and meet some collaboration partners. They are interested in anything related to the automation of the three most money-intensive tasks in the orchard, that is harvesting of the fruit, the pruning of the trees, and the thinning of the fruit. Everything that will help out with this is very interesting to us.

He would also like to get people off the sprayers, to avoid any potential for chemical exposure, however minuscule, and have autonomous spraying capacity. That means applying crop protection chemicals only to the trees that need it or only to the orchard parts that need it. We call this precision spraying. Having a variable rate spraying is what he is interested in.”

What’s ahead in 2023?

“I am positive and looking forward to what this year brings. I feel good about this collaboration. I feel we made a good decision. We found a really strong partner in NLWorks and FME and it is a mutually beneficial relationship for all parties involved.

We have created a meaningful program and work hard to accelerate the speed and the number of activities. This year is going to be a crucial year. We’ve done a lot of groundwork and now we’re ready to start seeing some impacts. I’m looking forward to seeing us grow, accelerate and enjoy it.”

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