San Luis Obispo

Graduate Named First-Place Winner of the California Strawberry Commission’s Strawberry Automation Research Award



​​Bioresource and agricultural engineering (BRAE) senior Jack Wells was named first-place winner of the Strawberry Automation Research Award (STAR) 2019. The $1,000 award in the statewide competition is given by the California Strawberry Commission (CSC).

Wells was recognized for the research he carried out as a 2017-2019 automation engineering intern at the Cal Poly Strawberry Center Automation Laboratory. He was directed by his industry adviser, the center’s automation manager, Dr. John Lin.

Wells’ project focused on improving the removal efficiency of a widely used “bug vacuum” to manage organic Lygus spp. in California strawberries. This bug costs California strawberry growers an estimated $200 million in damaged fruit each year. Wells’ early work involved creating a computer model to simulate airflow through the vacuum to identify aerodynamic inefficiencies. He later validated his models with entomologists at both the Cal Poly Strawberry Center and the University of California, Davis. This work led to the CSC funding a BRAE senior design class to further develop improvements to the bug vacuum. During 2019, Wells advised the 20 students in the class. The final design would remove approximately twice as much Lygus spp. than conventional bug vacuums. This design would later be field-tested by CSC staff on farm fields and commercialized by C&N Tractors, a local equipment manufacturer.

The Cal Poly Strawberry Center offers students the opportunity to move beyond the classroom by working with industry. The close partnership with the CSC allows the center access to more than 400 strawberry growers, shippers and processors in the state. Wells first started working with the Cal Poly Strawberry Center in 2015 at Cal Poly’s Swanton Pacific Ranch. There, he spent much of his time scouting for strawberry pests. “Since coming to Cal Poly in 2015, I had hoped to get a foot in the door with a company designing ag-tech equipment,” Wells said.

Looking back, he said, “I acted as a liaison between student groups and the Cal Poly Strawberry Center’s automation program. I debuted the first prototype at the Cal Poly Strawberry Center’s second annual field day in summer of 2018. I collaborated with (field researchers) to put our machine in a head-to-head comparison with conventional vacuums. I worked with a commercial manufacturer [to] produce a full-scale commercial prototype to be stress-tested.”

Wells believes that the “key to the success and speed of the project has been the constant cycle between design, fabrication, testing and redesign. With all these processes taking place under the Cal Poly umbrella, few setbacks were related to lack of resources or personnel. The integration of the automation program with the CSC field research team resulted in unparalleled access to strawberry growers and their properties, equipment and operators.”

After completing his bachelor’s degree, Wells accepted an automation engineering position at the CSC. He also plans to publish his works on bug vacuum improvements in the International Journal of Fruit Science. 

“Jack’s personal characteristics are maturity, intelligence, curiosity, creativity, hard work and a refusal to allow any obstacle to prevent him from achieving his research aims,” Lin said. “There is no doubt that he is deserving of the CSC’s STAR award.”