Editor’s Note: Nathan Dorn is CEO and cofounder of Food Origins, an early stage Precision Data company focused on hand-harvested crops. A serial innovator for companies including Pepsi Bottling, Gallo Wineries and Vineyards, and Reiter Affiliated Companies, his focus has been in energy and labor savings through system redesign and simple invention. He also serves as a consultant and helped to organize the agriculture track of RoboUniverse in San Diego earlier this month. Here he shares some key takeaways from the event and the advent of robotics on the farm in general.
A severe agricultural labor shortage is pushing food producers to become more involved in the development of technology innovation, especially in robotics, speakers told delegates attending the agriculture track at RoboUniverse earlier this month.
Robotics stand to dramatically alleviate the pressure on farm labor by replacing certain tasks on the farm. Startups with innovations on the market today, or close to commercialization, are engineering machinery to help automate planting, weeding, and harvesting.
Companies that produce wine, milk, and table grapes from the Central Valley of California attended but there was a particularly solid presence from the fruit and vegetable industry with representatives from Andrew & Williamson, Bonipak, Church Brothers, Driscoll’s, and Tanimura & Antle (T&A).
And that made sense considering current innovations are mostly focused on the fruit, vegetable, and specialty crops industries. A particular highlight of the conference was watching the Harvest CROO Robotics harvesting strawberries, as well as a discussion with Autonomous Solutions Inc (ASI) about their work on a completely autonomous tractor for the Midwest. “We know there is huge opportunity in the specialty crops and now we believe we are poised to address them,” said Mel Torrie CEO of Utah-based ASI.
The labor shortage was quickly identified as the biggest issue facing the agriculture industry today. Water scarcity and field health were other key issues mentioned, but it’s labor that’s keeping these businesses up at night.
Dino Giacomazzi of Giacomazzi Dairy Farms spoke on a panel about the state of agriculture and with his 7-year old son in the audience, described how the focus of his long-term plans for sustainability was finding enough labor to milk the cows next week. “Our workforce is either 25 years old or 65 years old. There is no in between right now and that is a problem. The 25-year-old farm hands either don’t like the work or find better work and are gone after payday. I have living animals who need the engagement from good people.”
Brian Antle of T&A described the lengths they are going to meet labor challenges. They built a 600-unit housing facility in Spreckels, California, this year to house temporary agricultural workers with H2A visas. T&A has also invested several millions of dollars in Spanish robotics startup Plant Tape to help it commercialize its automated field planting technology.
Antle said that it was no longer an option to sit on the sidelines and wait for machinery builders to deliver solutions. “We are all losing opportunities to sell quality products because the lettuce is picked late or we are too short staffed to meet our goals. If we cannot get more people, we must find machines; it is not that we have been sitting idle.”
Curtis Garner formerly of tomato producer The Morning Star Company said they have been very aggressively investing in agtech with a focus on automation, business intelligence, and logistics. “People want food and we have to deliver it without passing costs on.”
So much focus is being done on the economics of labor that when the tools are finally implemented, the returns are amazing, but there is also a huge amount of opportunity and value to be gleaned from the data these robotics startups are gathering, argued Dr. Kathleen Graves from The Weather Company.
Take Blue River Technologies as an example. The startup is manufacturing a weeding robot attachment that makes decisions using computer vision. This naturally collects a huge amount of phenotyping data from imaging each plant that other companies — such as Monsanto’s digital platform Climate Corp — are willing to buy. That’s likely to become a completely new, additional, and unplanned source of revenue for the business.
Reflecting on the event, it’s clear the technology is here, the return on investment is now visible for investors, and there are fires burning worldwide in every commodity about the absence of farm labor. The year 2017 will bring huge advancements in robotics where technology providers and farmers meet.
Plan to buy your first autonomously-harvested tomatoes and robotically-tended celery; it is coming.
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