It never fails. Any time state of the industry surveys are sent to growers and stakeholders in the agriculture field probing about their most pressing issues, access to adequate farm labor is always at or near the top of the list.
There has been a troubling proliferation of stories circulating among trade and mainstream media describing how growers are being forced to leave crops in the field due to a shortage of workers to pick them. Unfortunately, these reports are not fairy tales. They illustrate the reality of today’s farming environment. And there’s no way out, right? It might feel that way, especially with all the political games surrounding immigration policy. Of course, with a new U.S. President entering stage right, those “games” could go well into extra innings.
Knowing you’re not the kind of folks willing to wait around for fate, I’m not surprised that there are some innovative solutions sprouting up from within the farming community.
A few months ago, buzz started building around the possibility of an automated strawberry picker. Plant City-based ag-tech startup Harvest CROO (Computerized Robotic Optimized Obtainer) Robotics announced it received U.S. Patent approval for the “Pitzer Wheel,” a spinning pick-and-move mechanism named after its inventor and company co-founder Bob Pitzer. It’s been shown to be capable of picking at a rate of eight seconds per plant, and developers insist enhancements made over the past year have cut that rate in half. Talk about efficiency.
Harvest CROO’s other co-founder, Gary Wishnatzki of Wish Farms, knows a thing or two about the importance of having enough hands to pick a crop. He lives and breathes the company’s mission. Other players in the industry, too, have taken notice and decided to invest in the technology. Naturipe recently got on board. In a prepared statement, Naturipe’s President and CEO Rich Amirsehhi said, “Naturipe Berry Growers sees joining this collaborative effort as an important step in ensuring the sustainability of the U.S. strawberry industry and putting our growers in a position to be early adopters of the technology.”
This innovation is not just about labor-saving convenience. It’s about saving an industry without having to completely alter the way a crop is grown.
According to Harvest CROO, with the support of Naturipe, now more than 20% of the U.S. strawberry industry has invested in its automated mission. And just think, the company has other prototypes (produce-packing robots) and patent-pending applications in the works.
From the harvest end, it’s safe to say progress is being made for this particular high-input crop. What about on the front end of production? Recently, a team led by Driscoll’s demonstrated a three-bed transplanter to strawberry growers in California. In a word, it wowed, which is good news given the Golden State’s recent passage of a historic farmworker overtime law. Even if growers have access to laborers, the ability to pay them would likely make the bottom line run red. The screws continue to tighten.
For now, let’s give three cheers for the R&D rebels willing to share their vision. These innovations aren’t just novel. They are needed — now.