Stories of Technology, Innovation, & Entrepreneurship in the Southeast

Knoxville Business News Tennessee Mountain Scenery Background
August 19, 2018 | Tom Ballard

GeoAir’s drones used to help Grainger County tomato farmers

By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA

The growing season brings with it a passion for vegetables of all types. In this region, there’s a particular interest in Grainger County tomatoes.

Why such popularity? This 2017 article says it is for two reasons: the range of varieties grown by Grainger County farmers and the acidic soil that the tomatoes are grown in.

Like any crop, tomatoes are susceptible to various diseases including something called tomato leaf mold. As highlighted in this article, the mold attaches itself to the leaf and feeds-off of the humidity to grow and thrive. Immediate treatment is important so that the foliage isn’t dramatically infected or there will be a significant decrease in the amount of tomatoes yielded.

Enter Alex Adams, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of GeoAir, a local start-up focused on providing an alternative to the more costly option of managing mold by treating an entire field with a fungicide.

“Thanks to a grant from the Tennessee Department of Agriculture (TDA), we are working with farmers in Grainger County on both tomatoes and cucurbits,” the youthful entrepreneur told us. “We’re monitoring for mold on a weekly basis.”

The grant was awarded July 1 under TDA’s “Agriculture Enterprise Fund” which is a result of the 2016 Governor’s Rural Task Force to advance economic development in those areas. The grant to GeoAir provides 25 percent of the total cost with the participating farmers picking-up the balance.

“It’s their decision how many samples they want per acre,” Adams told us.

GeoAir is utilizing drones, something that has been a passion of the Northeast Tennessee native for several years. He actually builds them and has both a Private and Remote Pilot License from the Federal Aviation Administration.

How does GeoAir incorporate the technology? The drone flies over an entire field of crops collecting airborne samples. The data collected is used to create a heat map, which identifies mold hot spots. This information allows growers to spot treat the areas instead of the entire crop, saving time, money and crop production.

“We can also pinpoint the exact species of mold,” Adams adds.

“It’s not necessarily just the disease that’s the concern,” Adams explains. “It’s also the appearance of the tomato or cucurbit. For vegetables, there’s a lot of aesthetics.”

The University of Tennessee graduate has persistently pursued his entrepreneurial interests for years. GeoAir was one of four finalists in the 2017 national “Farm Bureau Entrepreneurship Challenge.”

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