A growing number of fruit and vegetable growers in the Columbia Basin are working with researchers in WSU Extension to find an easier way to track and share data on water quality used for crop irrigation.

Faith Critzer, associate professor and produce safety extension specialist at the WSU Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center in Prosser, Washington.

“Measuring water quality is important, because it lets growers know the likelihood that the water they are using might be contaminated with a foodborne pathogen,” said Faith Critzer, associate professor and produce safety extension specialist at the WSU Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center in Prosser, Washington.

“By monitoring water quality, we can make educated decisions about risks tied to that source,” Critzer said.

Producers have historically tested their water several times throughout the growing season to meet buyer requirements, but increased testing requirements may be put in place in the near future, based on current requirements in the Food and Drug Administration’s Produce Safety Rule.

“The FDA has proposed to increase testing frequency beyond what is currently required for buyer audits,” Critzer said. “This is an important change, because it significantly increases the cost for growers to adhere to regulatory requirements. It is important for us to determine if there are economical ways we can share data that is already being collected, and provide better coverage for the network as a whole.”

Critzer teaches standardized curriculum that explains key regulatory requirements of the FDA Produce Safety Rule. During one of her classes, growers aired their desire to have a better way to share information on irrigation water with others who are also pulling from the same water source, using a digital platform.

Water quality can change very quickly. Through a collective testing approach, the group as a whole can benefit from access to more data to help drive daily decisions.

Tiffany Reiss, program developer in WSU’s Innovation and Research Engagement Office (IREO)

After identifying the need for a platform, Critzer connected with Tiffany Reiss, program developer in WSU’s Innovation and Research Engagement Office (IREO). IREO’s Extension, Engagement and Education (E3) program is a collaboration between IREO, WSU Extension, the College of Arts and Sciences, and the Center for Civic Engagement to help identify researchers and courses that best fit industry and community partner problems and projects.

All WSU undergraduate students are required to take a capstone course that puts their education into practice. There is a constant demand for projects for these courses that students can tackle. The E3 program matches courses with external projects.

“Through the E3 program, I matched Faith’s identified need with students in the Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture working on a computer science capstone project,” said Reiss.

Working with Critzer and technology mentor Matt Johnson, a 2019 WSU computer science graduate, the seniors developed an idea for a website that growers and farmers can use to log agriculture water testing data and GPS coordinates, building a hub to crowdsource measurement data. Both Critzer and Reiss worked with the students to refine the data entry fields needed by growers, and how the website should be designed.

“By presenting real-world problems to our students, we provided an opportunity to take theory and apply it to actual industry needs,” Reiss said.

In April 2020, students worked with growers to test a beta version of the website, and find out if the application met growers’ needs. Growers provided students with feedback on features that could be included in future versions of the website. The growers agreed the website would be a great tool for data collection.

While Critzer sees the need for additional FDA guidance on the Produce Safety Rule before further implementation of the tool, she is already planning to work with future capstone classes to build on the progress made by this first cohort of seniors.

Reiss says that by working to bridge the gap between problems identified by industry and community stakeholders and research conducted by WSU faculty and students, we will be able to solve more problems together.

“You can’t solve a problem if you don’t know what the problem is,” Reiss said. “By partnering with industry and community partners, we have the opportunity to use our research expertise and student talent to solve issues that we might not otherwise be able to address.”

“This project, and working with the senior capstone class, was a great marriage between identifying a need with the technical expertise to develop a solution,” Critzer said. “Our students can be proud of the end product, and the growers are eager to see it come to fruition.”