Robots, Container Production, And The Future Of Vegetable Growing
Water. Labor. Affordable land. Transportation costs. As a vegetable grower, you face challenges like these every year — but lately they seem to be even more acute. That’s leading some forward-thinking operations to consider changes. Big, outside-the-box, paradigm-shifting changes.
Grimmway Farms in Bakersfield, CA, is one of these operations. Grimmway’s team of Robert Huckaby and Jeff Morrison are testing a concept from the world of ornamentals — growing plants in pots — to see if it can work in the broad expanse of the vegetable field. If successful, it could allow them the flexibility to grow in areas where soils may be poor, but that have affordable land and good access to water and local markets.
Oh, and then there are the robots.
Rather than having teams of field workers handle those pots, Grimmway is testing the ability of robots to move the plants out into the field to grow and then bring them back in at the end of the season for easy harvest.
These are ground-breaking ideas, for sure, but they’re also increasingly realistic as technology leaps forward at the same pace as the pressure on your operation’s bottom line.
Those outside pressures are forcing growers to consider ideas that may have seemed a little crazy just a few years ago, says Huckaby, general manager of Grimmway Farm’s organic farming and farm services division.
“We compete more and more not only with the encroachment of housing in farming areas but also with other crops,” Huckaby says. “If you drive around our region now, we’re competing heavily with almond trees, pistachios, and grapes, and they have been returning good numbers the last couple of years. Not only that, property values are going up in housing. We see an increase in cost per acre for us to go out and buy farm ground.”
That led Huckaby and his team at Grimmway to begin thinking differently about growing locations he never would have considered before.
“Out to the west of Bakersfield we have some very undesirable ground, but it does have good water. We started looking at whether we could do something in a potted-plant trial where we could buy some cheap ground that has water and make a crop on it.”
Labor was another driver.
“We’re starting to have some serious labor problems in California,” Huckaby says. “We’ve had shortages all season, and we’re looking at ways we can mechanize some things to free up labor for areas where we have to have that hands-on laborer.”
And for tasks that include repetitive stooping and lifting in the heat, there are other considerations, as well.
“Workers comp issues have become a bigger burden on our payroll system. We’re looking for ways we can take some of the heavy-lifting labor away from people and put it into some kind of mechanized form,” he says.
The potential solution to these problems came from Grimmway Farms’ greenhouse facility. Huckaby heard a discussion about the use of robots to move containerized plants around in a greenhouse environment, and it sparked an idea.
He contacted Harvest Automation, which had been supplying robots to greenhouse and nursery growers. Together, the companies devised a plan for spring 2015 to test whether the technology might work in vegetable field production.
The concept they developed was potentially a game-changer for Grimmway. The crop would be planted in nursery containers in a growing media with a good nutrient mix. Fully autonomous robots — think a shorter version of R2D2, with a vision system to guide it and arms to carry containers — would move the plants out into a field where they could grow through a normal season. At harvest time, there would be no more sending a crew out into the field to bend down, cut, box, and carry the crop to a trailer. Robots would go back out into the field, pick up the containers, and deliver them to a small harvest crew in a central location where the crop could be easily harvested with minimal bending and lifting.
Huckaby and Grimmway’s R&D/GIS Manager, Jeff Morrison, identified a space for two 100-foot-by-30-foot plots in a vacant lot behind a cooling facility on one of Grimmway’s ranches. Along with Harvest Automation co-founder and COO Charles Grinnell, they developed a trial using 1,000 Romaine lettuce and 1,000 cauliflower plants in traditional nursery containers 10 inches in diameter and 7 or 8 inches deep. Two Harvest Automation robots placed the containerized plants out in the plots in a predefined grid pattern at regular spacings. Morrison ran a lateral from an adjacent field and delivered water to the crops using solid-set sprinklers.
After that, the crop was allowed to grow “normally,” with Huckaby and Morrison watching closely and learning.
“We saw the pots every day, and watered as little as possible,” Morrison says. “We used a networked set of moisture probes from a company called gThrive in the pots to watch the soil moisture and other parameters too. The gThrive system tracks things like soil EC, solar intensity, soil temperature, air temperature, etc.
“We were really trying to monitor moisture and preserve nutrients in the soil. I think we did a good job with that.”
At the end of the season, both Huckaby and Morrison were encouraged by the results of the trials. The vegetables grew faster and produced a high-quality product with no weeds. They learned a lot about open-field container production and identified changes they plan to make in a second trial this fall.
“I think we will do some Romaine again and add some celery to it and maybe some leaf lettuce,” Morrison says. “Phase two will definitely involve drip irrigation as well.”
Cauliflower turned out not to be the best choice for container production, he says, due to some girdling on the plants due to whipping in the wind.
“Other commodities aren’t susceptible to that damage, so we will try some that maybe give us a better chance of success,” he says.
In phase one of the trial last spring, robots were only used to place the pots in the field. At harvest, Morrison sent a hand crew out into the plots to cut and box product manually.
“It wasn’t a full trial of the program. For the second trial this fall we plan to have a mock harvest station which would be a workflow where the robots pick up the pot in the field and deliver it to either an individual who’s harvesting the commodity or to a conveyance that would transport the pot to the individual performing the harvest. The overall concept is to minimize the manual labor in all aspects: planting, intermediate moves, and harvest,” Morrison says.
There’s an ergonomic component as well.
“You have someone who’s cutting a commodity and they don’t have to bend over hundreds or thousands of times each day. They can work at waist or chest level. They can have the product delivered to them and they can make a grading decision based on size, quality, etc.,” he says. “If they don’t feel it meets those standards they can pass on it, and it can be placed back out in the field.
The Investment And The Return
While the Grimmway team expects to find real benefits with land, water, and, especially labor, the costs of container production, not to mention the expense of purchasing robots, are a significant investment. But Huckaby and Morrison are confident the ROI could pencil out.
“As an overall trend in the industry, I think you’re going to see a lot more automation. I think you will see more vision-driven technology, more robotics. The Harvest Automation system already has a lot of that bundled in a workable package and it is a pretty impressive piece of equipment. It’s unique,” Huckaby says.
The price of the robots with their batteries and accessories is a little more than $30,000 per unit, says Harvest Automation’s Grinnell.
“Our customers are finding with regular usage they’re getting between 12 and 24 months payback at that price range depending on how much of the year they’re using them. It’s pretty economical for them at that price point,” he says.
At first glance, it might seem that a system like this would be limited to only the largest growers who can afford to invest in the equipment and production supplies. Grinnell insists, that’s not necessarily the case.
“In [the] nursery [market], our larger customers have more than 1,000 acres of production but we have customers who only have 6 acres of production. They’re suffering from the same labor issues the big guys are. Sometimes they’re even worse when you have a small operation like that,” he says. “We tried to develop a piece of equipment that would work for everyone and it’s very scalable. On the smaller operations maybe you only need two robots and on the big ones you may need 40.”
Huckaby says exploring and potentially investing in groundbreaking ideas like this is not only advisable, but really is becoming a necessity.
“From a Grimmway standpoint, on our organic side we’re farming a little more than 37,000 acres and in our hand-harvest crew alone we’re using about 1,700 people. We have a large opportunity to take advantage of something like this and try to bring some automation to that labor force,” Huckaby says. If it’s something we can get to work for us, it’s a huge opportunity for us to make some inroads.”
4 Benefits of Growing In Containers
Grimmway Farms sees a number of benefits in potentially moving some of its in-ground production to nursery containers, and using robots to move plants in and out of the field:
1. Land and water: With crops grown in a high-quality soil mix in containers, it may be easier to move production to more affordable land that might have poor soil but has good access to water.
2. Labor: Tasks like stooping and heavy lifting can be reduced or eliminated for field workers, leaving them to focus on jobs requiring physical dexterity and experienced decision-making. Potential for workers comp claims might just be reduced as well.
3. Transportation and markets: Containerized vegetables could allow growers to move production closer to their markets, reducing transportation costs and taking advantage of the increasing demand for locally grown produce.
4. Organics: Growing in a container with a premixed certified organic soil could allow growers to get an organic certification as quickly as 90 days versus growing in a piece of ground that might take three years to get certified. Using a fairly sterile media also could essentially eliminate hand weeding and deliver a substantial financial savings.
Technical Specs: The Robots
Supplier: Harvest Automation
Specs: 24-inches wide by 21-inches tall; 100 pounds.
Environment: 24-hour operation, can work both indoors and outdoors in temperatures ranging from 32°F to 105°F
Battery: Quick-swap lithium ion, with 4 to 6 hours of run time.
Payload: Containers from 5 inches to 12.5 inches in diameter, weighing up to 22 pounds. Robots can move up to 240 pots per hour under ideal conditions.
Cost: The robot with its batteries and accessories is a little more than $30,000 per unit