UC Merced students come up with solution to expensive farm problem

FRESNO, Calif. (KFSN) -- Sometimes during harvest, sweet potatoes still in the ground get smashed as the wheels of the harvester and trailer slowly zig-zag through a row. Not good for a popular crop that was destined for your plate.

Mike Duarte of D & S Farms in Atwater said, "It's frustrating because you want to pick up everything that you have. You grew it and so this is the last you do before it goes to market."

Duarte has seen many sweet potatoes crushed over his five decades of farming. He's also had them bounce out of the harvest bin.

Mike said, "Once they pop out, they usually get buried in the sand and you can't find them anyhow."

A team of engineering and computer science students from UC Merced came out to the farm to try to find a solution.

They dubbed their sensor-driven invention which fits over the trailer hitch "Sweet Steering."

Farmer Brian Carter explained, "As the unit moves from left to right, it gives out information to a computer up inside the tractor and will actually steer the hydraulics on the tractor."

Steering used to be difficult during harvest but now, the trailer stays level and the wheels stay within the row so they don't mash any potatoes.

Carter said, "So it will be turning right now, it's crossing the other side of the row and then it will go straight."

The result was less waste and more sweet potato fries for everyone.

UC Merced is always looking at ways to challenge students with problems that need to be solved.

Mechanical Engineering Professor Ashlie Martini said, "They took what they learned in the classroom and turned it into a real-world solution. We're so proud of them and so happy to give back to the community."

Duarte added, "They knew what the heck they were doing. They just took everything and had it all down."

The partnership with UC Merced was one Carter believed they'll continue to tap into in the future.

He said, "Yeah, absolutely. If some other farmers, if they're looking for solutions, this would be a great avenue."

Even on the farm, giving it "that old college try" can pay off.
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