PlantVillage gives undergraduate a chance to help feed the world via technology

July 09, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Coming from the small town of Limeport, near Allentown, a young Annalyse Kehs may not have thought much about international agriculture or feeding the world. But thanks to a project called PlantVillage, the Penn State rising senior not only is helping to address world hunger but is relishing the opportunity to travel to destinations such as Kenya and Rome to interact with farmers, researchers and policymakers.

PlantVillage began as a website that uses photographs of plant diseases and insect damage to crowdsource answers to crop questions posed by growers from around the world. The project since has grown to include a mobile app that combines artificial intelligence, machine learning and satellite data to diagnose crop problems, which are verified using "ground-truth" monitoring.

As it grows in scope, the ambitious project, led by David Hughes, associate professor of entomology and biology, also is providing opportunities for undergraduates who have a passion for sustainable and precision agriculture and for helping growers — particularly smallholder farmers in places such as Africa — to grow more food.

Kehs, who is majoring in biological engineering — a program offered jointly by the colleges of Agricultural Sciences and Engineering — has worked with PlantVillage since her freshman year, when she started by growing cassava in a campus greenhouse. Since then, she has done field work in Kenya and visited the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome. Penn State Ag Sciences News recently caught up with her during her travels in Kenya, and she described her experiences in the following interview.

You're a biological engineering major. What drew you to that field of study?

Kehs: My grandfather is a third-generation farmer, so agriculture has always been a part of my life. Along with having an agricultural family, I worked at a garden nursery and a mechanic frame shop for four years. The garden nursery provided me with a strong background in plants and diseases. Working in a mechanic shop enhanced and refined my problem-solving skills.

Describe what you do with PlantVillage.

Kehs: I am currently leading a project within PlantVillage that works with smallholder farmers in Busia, Kenya. The project is about co-creating with the farmers to help devise a climate adaptation plan for each growing season using smartphone and remote-sensing technology.

How will PlantVillage, and your contributions specifically, benefit smallholder farmers?

Kehs: With the help of PlantVillage, we are working to help subsistence farmers grow more food. With the climate changing, the seasonal growing periods are changing drastically, and the generational knowledge is no longer applicable. Therefore, we are working to provide near-instant advice during critical periods of the changing seasons.

What's the most challenging part of the work?

Kehs: Two aspects are challenging but aren’t related. The work is novel in terms of working with African smallholder farmers so there is little to start with, which means my job includes plenty of research and trial and error. The other aspect that is challenging is the fieldwork required to ground-truth our modeling. This means that we work in rural parts of western Kenya to survey fields by hand and have interactions with farmers on their experiences.

What's the most satisfying part of the work?

Kehs: The most satisfying part is the interaction with the farmers. For them, it is the difference between people coming to take information versus people coming to give information. They are used to people coming and taking from them, and so the fact that we arrive at their farms, interact with them and their families, shows them that we care about their well-being and future.

How do the courses in your major and PlantVillage complement one another?

Kehs: My major-specific courses provide the necessary background on molecular and chemical properties. Most of the time, this background helps me explain the "why," specifically when I am looking into evapotranspiration data processed from satellites.

Annalyse Kehs at UN-FAO

Annalyse Kehs (foreground), a rising Penn State senior from Limeport, Pennsylvania, discusses precision agriculture and crop health with scientists at the headquarters of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome.

IMAGE: David Hughes

Tell us about your visits to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome. What did you do and learn there?

Kehs: During my first visit in March, I participated in high-level collaborative meetings with universities from around the world, and I was able to take the information learned from these different interactions and apply it directly to my work now in helping smallholder farmers. Besides this, I participated in a webinar presentation delivered to the U.N. FAO, titled "FAO/PlantVillage Delivering the Most Advanced Precision Agriculture System in the World."

I was invited back to the FAO to participate in its World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought on June 17. During this time, I met with the FAO Water Productivity through Open access of Remotely sensed derived data, or WaPOR, team and participated in a workshop on how we can optimize the information gained from WaPOR and deliver it to farmers. I also worked closely with Fabio Lana, an emergency GIS specialist at FAO, to gain experience on using Google Earth Engine for crop-field classification using satellite imagery.

What do you plan/hope to do after graduation?

Kehs: I plan to continue working with the PlantVillage group with the possibility of being the first member of a joint Penn State-U.N. FAO Ph.D. program.

How do you think PlantVillage and your international experiences have helped to prepare you for your future?

Kehs: PlantVillage has empowered me as a woman in engineering and a first-generation student to believe in my power and significance as a young adult in changing the world. The international experiences have provided me the direct experience in working with people in dire need, specifically in developing countries. These people have been left behind by the rest of the world, and to experience this firsthand is incomparable to watching videos or reading news articles about the tragedies. When I see their glimmer of hope in me, my work and my team, it is incredibly inspiring and motivating.

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Last Updated July 09, 2019