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Is The Robotic Strawberry Harvester on the Horizon?

Is The Robotic Strawberry Harvester on the Horizon? How to Approach Labor Challenges While We Wait

Is The Robotic Strawberry Harvester on the Horizon? How to Approach Labor Challenges While We Wait

To address the industry's need for seasonal labor, businesses must collaborate to create more sustainable business practices. If data tells us anything, the global agriculture business is trending towards automation. A revolutionary new piece of equipment that could drastically curb labor shortages, for example, is the strawberry harvester. American agribusiness leaders have plenty to look forward to with these types of emerging technologies. Read more about these exciting innovations here.

For thousands of years, careful human hands played an integral role in the fresh fruit and produce industry. It's a time-consuming and meticulous process, requiring careful planning and training to execute. But as we move out of the Covid-19 pandemic, fresh fruit agribusiness leaders face mounting labor shortages—particularly those leaders specializing in strawberries. To address the industry's need for seasonal labor, these businesses must collaborate to create more sustainable business practices. For example, existing collaboration has resulted in robotic strawberry harvester systems, a revolutionary new piece of equipment that could drastically curb labor shortages.

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strawberries on the vine featured in greenhouse

The Robotic Strawberry Harvester: The Solution to the Current Labor Shortage in the Industry?

While many blame the pandemic for current labor shortages, the roots date back several years. Take the Canadian market, for example. Studies show that Canadian agribusiness was short 63,000 positions in 2018, already marking the highest job vacancy rate in the country at 5.4%. Those shortages persisted through 2019. While the pandemic didn't make things better, the long history of labor shortages in agribusiness—shortages that don't recognize borders—can't be ignored. Thankfully, American agribusiness leaders have plenty to look forward to with emerging strawberry harvester technologies.

Professionals in the strawberry industry understand the meticulous methods required to pick fruit. Strawberries don't have an after-ripening, unlike other fruits such as apples and bananas. You can only harvest them once they reach maturity. What's more, you must handle ripe strawberries with extreme care. Even the slightest squeeze can initiate the rotting process, thus rendering the berry as waste before even leaving the farm.

The robotic strawberry harvester has been in the making for over a decade and seeks to solve these challenges. All of these robots thus far have faced the same hurdles: identifying strawberries, grasping without damage, and harvesting without hurting the plant, to name a few. But with continued innovation, a successful product is on the horizon.

Robotic Harvesting Technologies in Fresh Produce Farming

There's no denying the continued challenges with food supply systems. Between labor shortages, over-farming, and decades of environmental degradation, we must engage threats to one of our most essential needs head-on. While sustainable agriculture is a very human dilemma, automation may yet prove to be our saving grace.

Experts believe the future of automation is on the horizon, though it will take several more years to integrate harvesting robots on farms across America. The 2021 Global Harvest Automation Report points to the technical difficulties with replacing human labor with automation, especially to handle delicate fruits like strawberries.

Still, emerging technologies alleviate the pressure of dwindling field laborers looking for less arduous work. In the face of current (and likely future) labor shortages, agribusiness leaders should be looking ahead to the future of automation and its role in sustainable and profitable harvesting. How else is automation currently changing the way we look at agribusiness?

Robot pruning strawberries

Agrobot Strawberry Harvester Prototypes

In 2012, AGROBOT demonstrated its automated strawberry harvester in Davis, California. In 2022, that robot still remains a prototype; according to AGROBOT CEO Juan Bravo, his strawberry harvester still cannot compete with human labor. However, a future in which it can is clearly on the horizon, as business leaders continue investing in these technologies. In fact, a survey of almost 50 robotic harvesting projects confirmed that strawberry-picking robots have attracted more interest than any other fruit for the past two decades.

The Bowery/Traptic Indoor Strawberry Harvester

As strawberry farmers know, they can opt to either grow the fruit indoors or outside. While many strawberry harvester projects are meant to work in outdoor fields, Bowery, an indoor farming company, recently acquired Silicon Valley start-up Traptic in the quest to develop indoor strawberry harvesters. Traptic had already begun using their technologies commercially. Now under Bowery's umbrella, they look to adapt their technologies for indoor vertical farming.

The Traptic strawberry harvester, according to its creators, can pick 100,000 strawberries daily. Bowery also plans on utilizing robots to pollinate strawberry fields and perform regular maintenance tasks like thinning and pruning. As of July 2021, Traptic began commercial deployment of their strawberry harvesting robots on farms owned by Blazer-Wilkinson, one of the top five US strawberry producers. The company seeks to curb $300 million in annual waste from strawberries that go unpicked in the fields.

Flying Autonomous Fruit-Picking Bots in Israel

To combat labor shortages during the pandemic, Israel-based Tevel Aerobotics Technologies unveiled flying autonomous robots (FAR) that use AI to identify and pick ripe fruit. Tevel leans into the fact that fruit can ripen at any moment—including when human workers aren't there to notice. Their robots work 24/7, identifying and picking ripened fruit around the clock. According to the company, this could save the industry billions in lost revenue.

The Tevel FARs use AI algorithms to locate fruit trees and identify products among the foliage. Several drones operating on one farm maintain an autonomous digital “brain” connected to a central unit. This prevents them from crashing into one another.

The company believes we'll be five-million human pickers short by 2050, exemplifying the need for automation to complement human labor instead of replacing it. The United Nations also recognized this need, as they designated 2021 the International Year of Fruits And Vegetables. The UN focused on innovation and improved smart tech to bolster efficiency and productivity while creating more sustainable ways to tackle the fruit and vegetable industry.

machine holding strawberry

Advancements in Australasia Coming Our Way?

Australia is perhaps leaps and bounds ahead of everyone else, as the country currently hosts the only fully-automated farm. The $20 million project spans 1,900 hectares, providing an encouraging statement about the future of agriculture automation. The farm utilizes drones, robotic tractors, and harvesters to manage the "manual" labor, while smart sensors measure carbon emissions.

Business leaders hope to leverage AI to make calculated decisions regarding planking, conditioning, and harvesting in the future. According to CEO of Food Agility Richard Norton, "It won't be long before technology takes farmers out of the field and immerses them in robotics, automation, and artificial intelligence."

When the pandemic struck, New Zealand struggled to find seasonal laborers to address their agricultural needs. Instead of letting billions of dollars worth of products rot in the field, the country turned to automation. They called on Robotics Plus, a homegrown tech innovator headed by Steve Saunders and Alistair Scarfe.

Scarfe and Saunders have been developing smart robots capable of navigating orchards, recognizing fruits, and harvesting without damage for over a decade. They believe their robots could have curbed the labor shortages brought on by the pandemic and seek to prevent farmers worldwide from experiencing that situation ever again.

They currently have automated apple packers operating in the US, New Zealand, and across Europe. These packers, just one of many innovations to come, suction fruit from conveyor belts to display trays. The robot then uses vision technology to orient the apples, so the more pristine side faces upward. With the ability to pack 120 apples/minute, the Robotics Plus apple-packer is much faster than any human worker.

Should You Invest in Robotic and Automated Solutions for Fresh Produce?

Every day presents a new shift in the agriculture technology sector. As many agribusiness leaders consider how to integrate currently available automation into their day-to-day processes, the profitability of indoor farming continues to rise, and available labor dips lower and lower.

To offset these challenges, agribusiness leaders must embrace new technologies, like the automated strawberry harvester, among other emerging trends in agriculture automation. However, this investment—like any redirection investment—comes with financial costs and questions. What sort of ROI can business leaders expect from GPS-guided harvesters? In the past, it wasn't enough to merit serious consideration, as technological advancements were difficult to use and prohibitively expensive. Today, those futuristic innovations are affordable realities.

Kyle Cobb, CEO of advanced.farm (the first company to harvest strawberries mechanically in 2019), points to the pandemic as a wake-up call. Rising labor costs, aging labor forces, and the arduous nature of the work all serve as contributing factors. When you add up all the costs, an “automated harvest starts to sound really nice,” he points out. However, the transition to fully-automated labor forces could take another ten years, according to Cobb.

Among other labor cost concerns, overtime laws taking effect in 2022 to farms of all sizes also have California agribusiness leaders worried. To that point, Cobb considers investing in automation “a hedge for future cost inflation, rather than a significant cost reduction.”

CEO of Korechi Innovations Sougata Pahari acknowledges that calculating your ROI in these scenarios can be challenging, as the tech isn't a one-size-fits-all situation. Still, considering the compounded effects of shrinking labor forces, increased operating costs, and dwindling profits, agribusiness leaders should be highly motivated to pivot towards automation.

robot transporting vegetation

The Difference Between Level Three and Level Four

Pahari believes the market is in "level three": we tell robots what to do and they perform the task. However, humans still have to maintain and charge the robot, thus requiring some manual intervention. In comparison, he sees "level four" robots as having little need for intervention. You'd tell it what to do at the beginning of the season, and AI takes over from there.

We’re a ways away from level four automation. Still, current agricultural automation advances can save farmers significant capital in the here and now.

For example, consider the average cost of operating a 40-horsepower tractor and weigh it against the capabilities of a vegetation management robot. The tractor requires a human driver to operate 100% of the time. With a field robot, you could expect human labor to account for about one-eighth of operating time, according to Pahari. Instead of someone driving the tractor, you can pivot that labor towards more meticulous tasks that require human intervention.

The human labor cost of operating a robot drops to about $1.88/hour, with electricity costing about $0.68/hour. Compare that to $15/hour for labor and about $6/hour for fuel, and you're looking at savings in the tens (if not hundreds) of thousands.

But how long might farmers have to wait before they see any ROI? MiFood Robot, a tech company based in Madrid, Spain, claims its products generate ROI in just 18 months for farmers in Western Europe. Their tech goes beyond just the strawberry harvester, tackling other delicates like grapes, apples, and oranges. CEO Rubén Miranda points to how 3D vision modeling compares fruit against a database of desired color, size, and ripeness. A task that may take human eyes several extra seconds to discern, a robot can perform in a split second.

tractor plowing farm field

Strategic Moves to Make While Waiting on Robotics

Even though strawberry harvester robots are still some years away from wide commercial availability, agribusiness leaders still have several viable strategies to counter rising labor costs and continued shortages now. A report on Farm Labor Productivity and the Impact of Mechanization published in the American Journal of Agriculture Economics hones in on available mechanization to offset rising labor costs.

Growers can drastically increase productivity among their current workforce by implementing mechanized labor of any degree. While they await emerging technologies, leveraging current offerings makes for an efficient start. In their current form, most harvesting technologies augment human labor instead of replacing it entirely. However, as we've seen for the past decade, the pace of innovation surrounding agricultural automation is astonishing.

Still, labor shortages on the farm itself aren't the only issues plaguing agribusiness leaders in 2022. Ongoing trucker shortages and supply chain bottlenecks have recently forced meetings between the National Grocers Association (NGA) and the US House of Representatives Agriculture Committee. The NGA pointed to labor unavailability as the “single greatest challenge” to the food supply chain.

As the NGA took the fight to their elected representatives, so did the National Immigration Forum (NIF), demanding eased immigration requirements to improve labor shortages. Heightened immigration barriers, still in place today, are preventing needed workers from entering the US to fill essential roles. The NIF suggests increasing the annual cap of H-2B temporary workers from 66,000 to over 100,000.

The NIF also suggests we retain and attract more STEM workers to expedite innovations in American agriculture. While business leaders can't make these decisions themselves, they must make their voices heard to their elected officials.

While agribusiness leaders wait on new tech and politicians, they can consider making their current vacant jobs more attractive. You may consider retirement plans, scholarships, healthcare, and comparative wages to attract and retain talented workers. The more workers you can attract, the more you'll also likely retain.

Strawberry growers may also turn their attention towards plant vigor and the overall harvesting conditions to recruit more laborers. Since harvest workers tend to work on piece rates, such strategies can empower them to earn more per input time. Despite all these current mitigation strategies, however, it's imperative that you keep your finger on the pulse of the agriculture automation movement, and be ready to jump when automated harvesting products become commercially available.

Prepare for Your Farm’s Automated Future Today

It goes without saying that farming equipment, in general, is an expensive undertaking for any agribusiness leader. Businesses need to understand the cost of new and emerging innovations (such as strawberry harvester systems) and be ready to act once the technology is perfected. However, this quick-to-action strategy requires sound financial planning, exemplifying the need for a financial partner with deep industry expertise like Dubuque Bank and Trust.

While companies like MiFood boast 18-month ROIs, not all farms, farmers, and technology are the same. You'll need to weigh the investment against your current expenses and decide whether the possible ROI is worth it.

If data tells us anything, the global agriculture business seems to be trending towards automation. Should you want to consider automated systems for your business, contact Dubuque Bank and Trust to speak with a banker with agricultural automation insight.

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