AN INNOVATIVE FIELD: NineStar, Purdue team up on ag engagement, education

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HANCOCK COUNTY — In a field north of Maxwell, tractors and farming implements aren’t the only kinds of equipment being used. You’ll also find sensors measuring soil parameters and students wielding laptop computers.

It’s all part of a new partnership between a Greenfield-based utility provider and a Purdue University satellite that sets out to foster agricultural community engagement and education.

The collaboration is between NineStar Connect, a cooperative offering fiber optic, electricity, water and sewer services; and Purdue Polytechnic Anderson, part of the university’s statewide network that offers the same technology degrees available at its main campus in West Lafayette.

NineStar Connect owns a 23-acre farm field south of County Road 600N and east of State Road 9, near its campus that also includes its Idea Co-op co-working space. Corn and ancient grains — a classification that includes grains like wheat, barley and oats — were planted there this spring.

The project consists of setting up new farming technologies in the field serving as a lab for local students and area farmers. Through visits, workshops and demonstrations, Purdue Polytechnic Anderson plans to use the field to engage its students and the local farm community about new agricultural innovations.

Corey Sharp, director of Purdue Polytechnic Anderson, said the institute connected with Idea Co-op through Pete Bitar, the institute’s entrepreneur in residence. That led to conversations with John Mascoe, president and founder of Leaftech Ag, which is has headquarters at Idea Co-op. The company offers a handheld “digital lab” that analyzes plants for nutrient and chemical composition, delivering results far faster and less expensively than current practices, according to its website.

Purdue Polytechnic Anderson also connected with Jill Snyder, director of business development at NineStar Connect’s north campus, on how to collaborate. The institute supported Mascoe on a few projects that led to the “Digital Smart Farm.”

“NineStar is critical to this partnership,” Sharp told the Daily Reporter in an email. “It is not only their land but their technology backbone that will drive some of the lab experiments in the field. This will be a true test and engagement opportunity for local farmers who want to enhance their operations by using sensing devices and other technologies in the field. We also appreciate NineStar’s commitment to help support youth who are interested in agriculture and technology. These students will be future farmers, engineers and technologists.”

Rashmi Deodeshmukh, an electrical engineering technology professor and assistant professor of practice at Purdue Polytechnic Anderson, is the lead faculty member on the project. She said the endeavor incorporates sensors, automation and networking along with gathering, interpreting and developing insight from data.

“This partnership will make it possible for the students to think about innovative applications in the farming sector primarily for crop management,” Deodeshmukh told the Daily Reporter in an email.

She added the initiative sets out to develop a test plot that will have a higher degree of automation compared to traditional farms. Students in collaboration with NineStar Connect and Leaftech Ag will develop that automation.

“The hope is that a student can think of a solution related to a challenge in the field and be able to take the solution from a concept to a design that can be tested and implemented,” she said.

Students will evaluate the best electronics based on environmental conditions, Deodeshmukh continued. They’ll also implement sensor networks on the test plot and evaluate the power requirements of the sensor nodes along with the best way to power those nodes. The sensors measure parameters like environmental humidity and soil moisture, temperature and content.

“This partnership has a great potential to encourage students to apply their knowledge to bring creative and innovative solutions to practical problems,” she said. “The students will test devices that we use in the lab, and my hope is that the program will make them think about the applications of sensing and digital technology in the agriculture sector.”

Michael Burrow, president and CEO of NineStar Connect, said in a news release that the cooperative is committed to supporting the community and its members through innovative projects like one it’s involved in with Purdue Polytechnic Anderson.

“We believe initiatives like this make the communities we serve places that thrive,” he said.