USDA Researcher Heping Zhu Awarded ASABE’s Prestigious McCormick Case Gold Medal

Zhu has dedicated over 20 years to developing specialty crop sprayer systems, including the foundational technology behind the Smart Apply® Intelligent Spray Control System™

OMAHA, Nebraska (July 12, 2023) – – Today at the Annual International Meeting of the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers (ASABE) at the Hilton in Omaha, Nebraska, Heping Zhu was awarded one of the society’s most prestigious awards, the McCormick Case Gold Medal, the earliest award created by ASABE to honor agricultural and biological engineers. Dating back to 1932 and named for two legendary individuals in the agricultural equipment industry, Cyrus McCormick and Jerome Case, the award is given for exceptional and meritorious engineering achievements in agriculture that have resulted in new concepts, products, processes or methods that advanced the development of agriculture.

Zhu is the first person from the USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) to win the McCormick Case Gold Medal in the last 20 years. He was recognized for a career devoted to creating a new class of precision spray technology. Zhu’s work underpins the Smart Apply® Intelligent Spray Control System™, a technology that is currently transforming chemical use and documentation among specialty crop growers around the world.

ASABE Executive Director Darrin Drollinger says McCormick Case Gold Medal winners are typically from academia or industry. Very rarely are they selected from the government. “To have a winner from the USDA where Zhu has worked for more than 20 years is very meaningful and speaks to his commitment to the development of a new class of sprayers for specialty crops that reduces chemical use and environmental impact. It’s also exciting when a person’s research makes the jump to commercialization as Zhu’s did when the USDA licensed the technology to Steve Booher, founder of Smart Apply, Inc.”

Adds Drollinger, “One of the things that ASABE strives for is standardization and compatibility in farm equipment. That doesn’t happen by accident. What really jumps out about the Smart Apply System is the fact the technology can be retrofitted onto existing air blast sprayers that literally every grower of specialty crops owns. The affordability and immediate impact for growers is a clear example of how the profession continues to make a difference in the industry.”

Zhu, who earned a PhD in agricultural machinery engineering from Jiangsu University in 1990 and another PhD in agricultural and biological engineering from The Ohio State University in 1996, joined Ohio State as a post-doc research associate at the end of 1990. While there he worked on USDA-ARS assigned projects for six years, and then he worked for paint sprayer companies to gain industrial knowledge. After earning American citizenship in 2000, Zhu joined USDA-ARS in Georgia in 2001, working on irrigation systems for row crops. He moved to the USDA’s Application Technology Research Unit in Wooster, Ohio in 2003, to focus on pesticide spray application technologies.

“From the beginning, the needs of growers were always in my mind,” Zhu says. “My field experiments are always done in growers’ production fields so I can listen to them and learn exactly what they need. What I heard is they were using too much chemicals because of old spray technologies. Only 30 percent of pesticides got on the plant. The rest was wasted.”

In 2013, Zhu and his team successfully invented an intelligent spray system, built six precision spray prototypes and began testing at farms around the country. Over the years, there were many challenges, including the multitude of different air blast sprayers used by growers. This led to the development of a universal control system so the technology could run on any sprayer. Ultimately, the complexities of commercialization and the need for additional expertise led to the technology being licensed to Booher, a serial entrepreneur.

After acquiring the rights to the technology in September 2018, Booher had the Smart Apply Intelligent Spray Control System on the market by May 2019. Today, the Smart Apply System is used in almond, apple, citrus, macadamia, peach, pecan and walnut orchards, grape vineyards, hops, as well as by ornamental nurseries and many other specialty crops. More than 400 dealer locations around the world are authorized to sell and service Smart Apply Systems.

To commemorate his win, Zhu received a beautiful medal bearing the images of Cyrus McCormick and Jerome Case on one side and the ASABE logo and farm scene on the other. Ever humble, he is quite surprised by the honor. “Most past recipients are all big guys—university deans, department chairs, famous professors, company managers or CEOs. I’m just a regular USDA-ARS engineer.”

About Smart Apply, Inc.
Smart Apply, Inc. is a Delaware C Corp based in Indianapolis, Indiana, that created the laser-guided, density-based, precision sprayer technology in conjunction with the USDA under a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement. The Company markets the Smart Apply® Intelligent Spray Control System™ through more than 400 dealer locations around the world. The Smart Apply system is proven to reduce chemical and water use by more than half, with less waste, less drift and less labor. Learn more.

About the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers (ASABE)
The American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers (ASABE) is an international professional society devoted to agricultural and biological engineering. It was founded in December 1907 at the University of Wisconsin–Madison as the American Society of Agricultural Engineers and is based in St. Joseph, Michigan. Learn more here.

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