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Driscoll’s using new technology to improve flavor, food safety

Agriculture companies are always striving to produce better-tasting, longer-lasting, safer fruits and vegetables, which diminish in value the minute they go from stalk or vine to market.

Driscoll’s, a $3.5 billion provider of berry plants, is turning to emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, the internet of things (IoT) and blockchain, to produce hardier plants and fortify its supply chain, which includes traceability.

“We’re just scratching the surface on building an integrated data platform strategy that will take advantage of artificial intelligence and machine learning, both for R&D genetics and on the value chain of fruits as well as business operations,” Driscoll’s vice president and chief information officer Tom Cullen told CIO.com.

Driscoll’s started more than a century ago in California’s Pajaro Valley and today develops and leases strains of berry nursery plants — strawberries, blueberries, blackberries and raspberries — to growers around the world. Driscoll’s ships the berries for sale under its own name at Walmart, Whole Foods, Kroger and other many  other retailers.

The company receives, cools and ships as much as 30 million pounds of berries a week during peak season, 75 percent on the day they’re received.

Cullen believes artificial intelligence and machine learning-based analytics can help Driscoll’s more rapidly find patterns in the data it collects, thereby cutting discovery and development time, CIO.com.

To analyze this data, Cullen plans to build a data lake from which Driscoll’s staff, ranging from business analysts to data scientists, can query.

Driscoll’s is considering such public cloud services as foundational technology for the analytics solutions and Cullen expects to pilot public cloud software from Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure this year.

Whichever the platform, it must eventually manage data from Driscoll’s supply chain. The company collects location, time, temperature and humidity data from hundreds of Bluetooth-enabled GPS sensors in coolers Driscoll’s uses to haul fruit by truck. If the temperature gets too warm, Driscoll’s gets an alert and can contact the driver to take action before the temperature damages the fruit or creates food safety problems.

Today, Driscoll’s accesses this information via a portal that includes geolocation software showing trucks on a map. Eventually, the company would like to funnel the information through its future analytics platform for additional analysis and insights.

On that front, Driscoll’s is also exploring blockchain, an immutable digital ledger technology. Because blockchain can ensure provenance and trust, it can help stakeholders pinpoint the origin of a batch of berries that could be responsible for a foodborne illness, a tricky situation in an industry where dozens of partners touch the supply chain. Driscoll’s is working with IBM on a blockchain solution that will help it track its fruit from production to sale.

“No one entity throughout the entire supply chain owns authority over the truth of data associated with food so if there is a safety event we can track it,” Cullen says, adding that blockchain could also help validate batch certifications, such as whether berries may be labeled organic or fair trade.

He envisions blockchain data being processed and analyzed in its large analytics cloud solution, giving Driscoll’s a holistic view of its research and development, business operations and supply chain. With this system, Driscoll’s employees will be able to query and access structured and unstructured data without IT’s help, accelerating decision making across the business.

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