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Reporting on science, technology and innovation in Arizona and the Southwest through a collaboration from Arizona NPR member stations. This project is funded in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.Additional stories from the Arizona Science Desk are posted at our collaborating station, KJZZ:

To Plan The Season’s Crop, Yuma Veggie Seed Growers Turn To Google Maps

University of Arizona Cooperative Extension

Fifty farms in Arizona grow more than $4.5 million in vegetable seeds, according to the latest statistics from the US Department of Agriculture.

Coordinating where those crops are grown requires some careful planning and a little distance.

To grow vegetable seeds, fields with similar crop varieties or even plants within the same family need to be spaced at least two miles apart. This is called the isolation distance.  

Any closer, and bees can easily move from field to field carrying unwanted pollen with unwanted genes.

“Cross pollination is vital within a field, but purity of the seed is at risk when bees move pollen to other fields," said Dr. Kurt Nolte, Yuma County extension director. "So if we have a white onion field right next to a red onion field, the possibility of getting a pink onion is very high. And of course, nobody wants a pink onion.”

Nolte calls the planning a choreographed dance. 

For decades, local seed growers would meet during the summer at the Yuma extension office. They would pin pieces of colored paper to mark the location of crops on a large map hung on the wall.

“We were spending a lot of time just going back and forth trying to pin isolations on that board,” said  Jose Solorzano, research manager for Takii, a vegetable and flower seed company.

Technology offers a new way to track the crops. The pins now show up on a shared Google map, and users can sort by crop type and quickly determine distance from other fields. Getting this information quickly and accurately in rather remote settings makes seed producers more efficient.

“As long as we have an Internet connection, we can do it anywhere in the world,” Solorzano said.

Nolte developed the web-based map, and this is the third summer growers and seed companies have used it. He said going digital may have a drawback – there are no more meetings at the map.

Solorzano said that’s true, but his colleagues are still just a phone call away.