Fruit’s Future is so Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades [Opinion]

Posing with an American Fruit Grower cover from the 1920s, I see a bright future for the fruit industry.
Posing with an American Fruit Grower cover from the 1920s, I see a bright future for the fruit industry.

Do you know what an earworm is? Sure, there’s a corn earworm. But this time I’m not actually talking about a pest that plagues crops. The earworm I’m referring to is pesky song that keeps playing and playing in your head.

As I was traveling from one winter meeting — the Washington State Tree Fruit Association’s annual meeting — to another —the Almond Conference, I got a song stuck in my head, Timbuk3’s “Future So Bright.” You may not have heard of Timbuk3, but I hope a few of you recognize the line “The future’s so bright, I gotta wear shades.” Otherwise the point of this column may be for naught.

What got me thinking about the song was just how much optimism and excitement surrounds the fruit industry. Automation may — hopefully —be on the horizon, much faster than people expect.

“I feel like we’re getting close,” Dan Steere, CEO of Abundant Robotics said during an update at the Washington event on the robotic harvester his company is developing.

He says research is continuing with the end goal of the robotic harvester to pick fruit with the same, if not better, fruit quality than traditional harvesting.

Steere said in field testing, the robotic harvester has logged a 5.3% defect rate – including cuts, bruises, and some punctures — while picking ‘Gala’ this fall. The other bit of note is how encouraging the sensors are in detecting the apples in the tree canopy.

“We’re happy we’re seeing 95% of apples with the robotic harvester,” he said.

Following Steere’s presentation was a grower panel on mechanization options for modern orchards. Washington growers Dave Gleason of Domex Superfresh Growers and Bob Murphy of McDougall & Sons were joined by Rod Farrow of Lamont Fruit Farms in New York.

These men have known this robotic harvester is on the way, as it has been mentioned at many industry events over the past few years. However, their excitement at the latest progress and development was hard to hide. With labor availability through H-2A or otherwise becoming a greater and greater challenge, the robotic harvester is seen as a big development coming soon and coming fast. Gleason, Murphy, and Farrow urged the growers in the session to begin thinking about how to get orchards ready for automation within the next 5 or 10 years.

“We’re going to be an industry of haves and have nots,” Farrow said, “You need to be in the group of haves.”

This optimism is also seen in this issue which marks our second annual State of the Industry report. Dave Eddy and I have spent time poring over your responses to our survey and one thing we’ve learned is despite all the challenges you may have faced this past growing season –— labor availability, water, weather, drought, pests —you’re still looking at the tree fruit industry as being glass half full.

It’s a refreshing and exciting time for us, and for you.

As Timbuk3 sings “Things are going great, and they’re only getting better …

The future’s so bright, I gotta wear shades.”

Time to break out my sunglasses.

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