Is the Robotic Revolution Coming to Farming?

Is the Robotic Revolution Coming to Farming?

Growers invest in expensive equipment not because it looks cool, but because it makes them more efficient so they will be more profitable in the long run. It’s important to keep that in mind, even when considering such cool stuff as robots.

Danny Royer, Vice President, Bowles Farming Company, which grows almonds and other crops in California’s San Joaquin Valley, bought 50 iPhones for employees and believes all that extra data will pay off with better informed farming decisions. (Photo: David Eddy)

That was one of the nuggets gleaned earlier this month at Meister Media Worldwide’s second annual PrecisionAg® Vision Conference in  Glendale, AZ. This year’s conference had a new aspect, as experts explored how specialty crop precision applications are beginning to match the row crop innovations that gave precision farming its start in the 1980s.

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“The robotic revolution is coming,” said Bob Pitzer. “The labor situation is driving it.”

Pitzer made his remarks during a session titled “The Real Potential of Robotics for Specialty Crops.” As the co-founder and Chief Technology Officer, Harvest CROO Robotics, which is in Florida developing units for harvesting strawberries, it’s not surprising that he would be pro-robot. But Pitzer’s certainly not alone in that sentiment.

Another specialty crops breakout panel discussion was titled, “What Growers Want,” which, incidentally, attracted a standing-room-only crowd of techies and venture capitalists eager for insight. One of the speakers was grower Alan Boyce of Materra in California, and he agreed that robots are going to be necessary because of the lack of labor.

Boyce said the main reason is birth rates have nosedived in Mexico over the past few decades, and history shows that once birth rates begin such a decline, they don’t go back up. “That cake is baked,” Boyce said.

Most growers, though, might agree that a stumbling block moving forward can be found on a slide shown by one of the main speakers at the conference, Aidan Connolly, Chief Innovation Officer, Alltech: “AgTech start-ups need to consider actionable benefits for farmers instead of focusing on cool tech.”

However, that doesn’t mean Connolly sees that as anything more than a minor problem to be overcome. He summed up his position quite neatly: “Digital transformation of our culture means rethinking your business.”

Connolly also made the following provocative statement as to how the fruit and vegetable business is changing: “Every grocer knows we’re in the last 10 years of big box grocery stores. People are simply too time-poor.”

Connolly’s statements were among the nuggets I tweeted out from the conference, all with the hashtag #PrecisionAgVision.

For more on the conference, here’s PrecisionAg Professional Senior Editor Matthew Grassi’s take, and my editorial, “Big Data is Coming to You.”