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Some farmers are responding to the worsening farm labor shortage by turning to automated harvesting equipment and other advanced technology that perform tasks such as pruning, seeding and weeding.

Robotic harvesting vehicles are being tested in Florida and California to pick strawberries and replace labor-intensive tasks normally performed by dozens of farm workers. Also, robotic machinery is being tested to harvest apples and other crops, and efforts are underway to develop small agriculture field robots that can attack weeds or take care of other farm work.

Large farming companies are helping to champion the robotic solutions by sometimes becoming strategic investors in the technology firms and by participating in testing of the next-generation farm equipment. It comes as advancements in processor speeds also have paved the way for robotics to become more practical and cost effective.

“We’re seeing more and more of a move towards just technology in general, whether it’s robotics or mechanization,” said wine grape grower Ryan Jacobsen, CEO of the Fresno County Farm Bureau. “We’ve seen some incredible improvements there, and for us to remain competitive in California just because of so many areas of cost and the lack of needed individuals to help us bring in the harvest we’re going to have to rely upon this technology.”

Farm labor shortage

Last year was an especially tight year for farm labor supply in California’s largest agricultural region, the San Joaquin Valley, and arguably the tightest year the region has seen in a decade, according to industry executives. The state’s $45 billion agriculture industry produces about half of the nation’s fresh fruits, vegetables and nuts.

For many years, the hired farm labor force in California has been composed of mostly immigrants, many without full or proper documentation, according to Daniel Sumner, a University of California at Davis professor of agricultural and resource economics. However, he said, the flow of farm workers has been gradually declining and stepped-up immigration sweeps by the federal government in California haven’t helped.

One of the innovations in development involves small robot fleets operating in swarms, a system dubbed Xaver from AGCO’s Fendt division, to perform high-precision tasks on farms, such as corn planting. The autonomous vehicle concept for farms also can have other uses, including fertilizing. The company’s website said the robot can plant “round the clock, 7 days a week, even in conditions that conventional machines find difficult.”

Some of the robotic harvest machines now pushing through fields use electronic sensors and techniques learned through research and development of advanced driver-assist systems and semi-autonomous cars.

“What I tell people is, we’re like self-driving cars,” said Florida strawberry grower Gary Wishnatzki, co-founder of Harvest Croo Robotics, a Florida-based robotic harvesting company. “We don’t have to be perfect. We just have to be better than the humans — and believe me humans damage a lot of fruit, too, when they’re picking and packing it.”

Strawberry-picking robot

Wishnatzki, who also is CEO of Plant City, Florida-based Wish Farms, said a single strawberry robot harvester has the potential to mechanically pick a 25-acre field in just three days and replace a crew of about 30 farm workers.

Up to now, Harvest Croo has passed on any venture capital financing but has strategic investors that include about two-thirds of the domestic strawberry industry as well as a large packaging company.

Harvest Croo’s robotic harvester is being tested now in Florida and uses vision sensors and software to scan plants and locate ripe berries. It uses advanced equipment designed to avoid bruising or damaging the soft fruit. The company also has other strawberry picking platforms being built with Ramsay Highlander, a pioneer in lettuce harvesting equipment, and at least one will be tested this year in California.

Similarly, Spain-based Agrobot has been testing a strawberry harvester machine in Driscoll’s berry field in Oxnard, California. Driscoll’s, which grows berries in nearly two dozen countries, also is one of the investors in Harvest Croo, a competitor of Agrobot.

Other companies are also looking to enter the strawberry space with robotic harvesters, given that labor costs for the domestic strawberry industry approach about $1 billion annually, and equipment is seen as competitive with human harvest costs.

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