Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Farm Technology Spectrum

I tagged along on a tour today.  When we arrived, we had to show photo ID, sign in, explain why we were there, who we were there to see, what time it was, blah, blah, blah.  Upon entering any building or outbuilding, our tour guide was required to scan a security card and punch in security numbers in order for the door to open into the next chapter of our tour.

That Spouse ' Mine was showing some visitors around his workplace: the USDA Grain Science Lab.  Security is fairly strict there.  I don't show up at his place of work too often.  When I do, I usually meet him in the parking lot rather than do all the security clearance and THEN wait for him to escort me to and from his office or lab. 

This was a fun and informal tour. He showed us some NIR (near-infared ) spectroscopy instruments he has developed.  Since I can't post photos, I will describe his lab.  There are computers all around the perimeter of the lab, and most are hooked up to instruments of all sorts. That Spouse o' Mine is not the sole occupant of this lab, and the instruments in the lab are not his work alone.  One instrument that he is developing tests the protein content of grain, like soybean.  One instrument tests the moisture content of grain, like wheat.  He drops a grain of wheat into a tiny cylindrical space, where an NIR spectrometer gauges the moisture: 10%? 14%?  That's some intricate testing, given the size of a grain of wheat.  We saw moisture probes for large grain elevators.  There was an instrument for testing exact size of grains (e.g., corn kernels).  Another instrument can test the amount of "live insect" to be found in a tested amount of milled wheat.  (If you've never enjoyed playing in a truckload of wheat during harvest, you might be shocked to see the grasshoppers/grasshopper parts that are in these truckloads headed for the grain elevators.)

We heard about white corn and yellow corn: why some food manufacturers use one over the other (tortilla chips, yellow corn chips, corn tortillas, grits, and so on.)  Some food manufacturers are very interested in having completely white corn, and their growers have sought an instrument which will sort (by color) any kernel which might have a streak of red in it - something that often occurs in nature.

In a couple of months that Spouse o' Mine will be heading to Ghana for some work in post-harvest handling.  That is to say, "What do we do with the grain after we pick it?"   The U.S. Agency for International Development is leading a project in many countries in Africa and South America to improve farming methods in those areas.  Many years ago, that Spouse o' Mine worked for USAID in Egypt on a 2-year mechanization project.  To simplify what he did would be to explain, "Put your water buffalo away.  This is a tractor."

And there is the juxtaposition:  Teaching people what a tractor is, explaining what might be better than storing grain in termite mounds...and then turning around to work with food companies who want an instrument to test pistachio shells: are they open?  are they closed?

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