Is this progress?

Submitted: Jul 22, 2017

 And if it is progress, who, exactly, benefits from this progress? It's based on some assumptions that might not pass the rationality test. For example, does history support the proposition that California farmers haven't always lied about a labor shortage when farm-labor wages rise? Has mechanization really been all that successful in agriculture, or has it merely raised the amount of capital needed to enter agriculture, and therefore increase the size of farms that can break even, given so many other variables it would be tedious to mention?

As far as re-engineering crops for mechanical harvest, a la the famous Square Tomato of the 1970's, Discoll has of course already engineered its strawberry to be bigger, redder, containing more water and less taste, and possessing more shelf life than other strawberries on the market. It has evovled over the decades into a perfect example of agribusiness "progress," and, no doubt, pickerbot will further modify a once tasty berry.

Tom Peters, author of the famed In Search of Excellence, once wrote of Silicon Valley, his beat for many years, that while Japanese use technology to enhance human labor, Americans use it to replace human labor.

On the other hand, the issue is ambiguous for those of us who have picked strawberries in the Salinas Valley.

-- blj

 

7-21-17

Los Angeles Times

As California's labor shortage grows, farmers race to replace workers with robots

Geoffrey Mohan

http://www.latimes.com/projects/la-fi-farm-mechanization/

Driscoll’s is so secretive about its robotic strawberry picker it won’t let photographers within telephoto range of it.

But if you do get a peek, you won’t see anything humanoid or space-aged. AgroBot is still more John Deere than C-3PO — a boxy contraption moving in fits and starts, with its computer-driven sensors, graspers and cutters missing 1 in 3 berries.

Such has been the progress of ag-tech in California, where despite the adoption of drones, iPhone apps and satellite-driven sensors, the hand and knife still harvest the bulk of more than 200 crops.

Now, the $47-billion agriculture industry is trying to bring technological innovation up to warp speed before it runs out of low-wage immigrant workers.

California will have to remake its fields like it did its factories, with more machines and better-educated workers to labor beside them, or risk losing entire crops, economists say.

“California agriculture just isn’t going to look the same,” said Ed Taylor, a UC Davis rural economist. “You’re going to be hard-pressed to find crops grown as labor-intensively as they are now.”

Driscoll’s, which grows berries in nearly two dozen countries and is the world’s top berry grower, already is moving its berries to table-top troughs, where they are easier for both human and machines to pick, as it has done over the last decade in Australia and Europe.

“We don’t see — no matter what happens — that the labor problem will be solved,” said Soren Bjorn, president of Driscoll’s of the Americas.

That’s because immigrant farmworkers in California’s agricultural heartlands are getting older and not being replaced. After decades of crackdowns, the net flow across the U.S.-Mexico border reversed in 2005, a trend that accelerated through 2014, according to a Pew Research Center study. And native-born Americans aren’t interested in the job, even at wages that have soared at higher than average rates.

 “We’ve been masking this problem all these years with a system that basically allowed you to accept fraudulent documents as legal, and that’s what has been keeping this workforce going,” said Steve Scaroni, whose Fresh Harvest company is among the biggest recruiters of farm labor. “And now we find out we don’t have much of a labor force up here, at least a legal one.”

Stated bluntly, there aren’t enough new immigrants for the state’s nearly half-million farm labor jobs — especially as Mexico creates competing manufacturing jobs in its own cities, Taylor said. He has calculated that the pool of potential immigrants from rural Mexico shrinks every year by about 150,000 people.

Not surprisingly, wages for crop production have climbed 13% from 2010 to 2015 — a higher rate than the state average, according to a Los Angeles Times analysis of Labor Department data.

Growers who can afford it have begun offering savings and health plans more commonly found in white collar jobs. And they’re increasingly turning to foreign guest workers, recruiting 11,000 last year, which is a fivefold jump in just five years, The Times found.

None of that will solve the problem, economists say. Changing what we grow and how we grow it is all that’s left.

Response has been uneven, at best. Vast areas of the Central Valley have switched from labor intensive crops such as grapes or vegetables to almonds, which are mechanically shaken from the tree. The high-value wine grape industry has re-engineered the bulk of its vineyards to allow machines to span the vines like a monorail and strip them of grape clusters or leaves.

Fresno’s raisin industry, however, has a tougher problem to solve on a tighter profit margin. To fully mechanize, it may have to change not just its vineyard design, but the grape variety itself, much like the tomato industry developed a tough skinned Roma to withstand mechanical harvesters.

When labor shortages and price shocks hit in the early 2000s, growers altered vineyards so that machines could shake partially withered Thompson seedless grapes onto paper trays, a method that can slash more than 80% of labor costs, according to U.C. Davis researchers.

Eliminating trays entirely, however, requires a grape that can dry slowly on the vine before September rains hit. Thompsons mature too late. The Sunpreme, developed by a retired USDA plant scientist in the Central Valley, may soon be widely available, said Matthew Fidelibus, a UC cooperative extension advisor.

It may be too late to mechanize asparagus. The crop, among the most labor-intensive in the state, has gradually shifted to Mexico since trade barriers made it cheaper to grow there, casting a nostalgic pall over Stockton’s asparagus festival.

Last year, farmers in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta area harvested only 8,000 acres of the signature spear, which is depicted on water tanks and town emblems throughout the region. In 2000, they harvested 37,000 acres, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“We’re headed toward zero pretty soon,” said Cherie Watte Angulo, executive director of the California Asparagus Commission.

Grown on perennial beds that last a decade or so, asparagus must be selectively harvested every day during its 90-day season. Machines have utterly failed to duplicate human judgment and dexterity.

This season, a grower’s cooperative in the Stockton area tested a prototype harvester from Washington state that uses sensors to select only the mature stalks.

“I’ll keep it simple: the machine didn’t work,” said Bob Ferguson, who hosted the machine on his 162 acres of asparagus beds. “He took it back up to Washington.”

Even Driscoll’s AgroBot, among the more advanced prototypes in California fields, was picking only a bit more than half the ripe berries in its trials this spring in Camarillo.

“We think we are very close, but every day we try to make the next step. We see new things we need to solve,” said Juan Bravo, the Spanish inventor who is counting on Driscoll’s continued backing for his 10-year endeavor.

So far, the Watsonville, Calif., company is into AgroBot for the long-haul, said Michael Christensen, Driscoll’s research and development director, who watched Bravo tinker with the machine’s three dozen arms before setting it to another crawl.

Vertical rods slid left and right, guiding four-fingered graspers to precise coordinates set by a camera and computer. Soon, a stream of ripe berries emerged on a conveyor, mixed occasionally with green-tipped fruit.

“In some ways, you can look at it as every pound picked is part of the solution,” Christensen said.

The rest of the fruit industry has its eye on AgroBot’s trials, even as it looks to other start-ups such as Abundant Robotics, which hopes to duplicate the dexterity, judgment and perception of human apple pickers. Soft Robotics, based in Cambridge, Mass., boasts that its graspers can pick up a cupcake without damaging the icing.

Frank Maconachy is skeptical of solutions imported from tech centers. His company, Ramsay Highlander, started as a greasy machine shop in the Salinas Valley and slowly migrated toward Silicon Valley instead.

The company, with $15 million in annual sales, builds a fleet of computerized and sensor-driven machines for the lettuce and produce industry — and he is working with AgroBot’s U.S. competitor for strawberry picking, Harvest Croo, based in Plant City, Fla.

An early generation of robotic machine uses a band saw to mow whole rows of baby lettuce and other greens. But when produce giant Taylor Farms tried it on romaine heads, a slight height variation in the beds put the saw right across the heart of the heads, leaving nothing but shredded leaves, Maconachy said.

Maconachy developed a cutter using high-speed water jets. It now cuts all the romaine heads cleanly, and can be adapted for cabbage and celery.

“That machine took the work of 30 people and brought it down to about 12 people,” Maconachy said.

Cutting iceberg heads, especially large ones, remains problematic — it is planted so densely and the heads are so heavy it is difficult to maneuver cutters and graspers into beds. Maconachy thinks he has that engineering problem solved, but can’t raise the capital to develop it.

Ironically, plant scientists may have to reverse their cross-breeding to the original “iceberg” head, nicknamed from the tons of ice it took to keep it cool for cross-country train trips.

The crisphead variety used to be more bulb-shaped, which would give cutters and graspers more room to work, Maconachy said.

Rick Antle, chief executive of Tanimura & Antle, is whittling away at the labor on the planting side. He showed off his own robotic bet, called Planttape. The machine — equally homely as AgroBot — raced down a lettuce field outside Salinas, laying down a long strand of seedlings strung together on a bio-degradable tape, like 9-volt batteries in a 50-caliber machine gun belt. 

That was twice the speed of its 35-year-old predecessor, and it required less than a tenth of the labor. To prove his point, Antle ran the old machine, which required three times the workers, on a nearby celery field. “That was it, for 35 years,” Antle said.

Lettuce growers usually plant seed, which can be unreliable, every few inches, then thin the field to fit the maximum number of heads at the optimal spacing. That means scores of workers in the spring have to walk row after row, moving inch by inch to pull seedlings over with a hoe — one of the oldest tools of agriculture.

The computer-guided “See and Spray” machine, developed by Silicon Valley start-up Blue River Technology, can do the work of 20 of those laborers before noon. It is one of five robotic thinners deployed on thousands of acres of summer lettuce in the Salinas Valley.

Diego Alctantar, 25, operated the tractor pulling See and Spray across a recently planted lettuce field near Gilroy. A computer guided jets of fertilizer-infused water to desiccate seedlings according to a kill-or-skip pattern that left nine-inch gaps between heads.

“See and Spray”

\Alcantar, who grew up in the Salinas Valley, thinned lettuce and cut spinach the old way before getting his tractor license a few years ago. “It’s hard labor,” he said. “I have a lot of respect for them.”

The machine is not perfect. It can’t thin out two sprouts that come up together, and it misses some it is programmed to kill.

A small crew nearby strolled down the rows, taking care of stragglers with a few short hoe strokes.

 

2-4-17

USA TODAY

Who wins from Trump immigration policy? Robotic berry pickers, for a start

Elizabeth Weise 

https://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/news/2017/02/04/agriculture-farms-farmers-immigration-executive-order-trump-shortage-california/97396066/

MENLO PARK, Calif. — President Trump's executive order on immigration has much of the tech world rallying against it. But for one small corner, agricultural technology, it represents an opportunity.

Farmers have been facing an increasingly tight labor market for years. The immigrant workforce that has long picked and packed the nation's fruits and vegetables move to better jobs as soon as they can, replaced by new immigrants.

Due to a strong Mexican economy that's created more opportunity there, and increased border enforcement, the number of people to replenish the workforce has dropped significantly, said Erik Nicholson,  a national vice president with the United Farm Workers of America.

Robotic, sensor and other companies are striving to fill that hole. The technology, from a Lettuce Bot to crop drones to robotic strawberry pickers, is still in its infancy. But agricultural-tech companies say any policies that further keep out immigrants is likely to increase demand.

Like many companies, Taylor Farms in Salinas, Calif., is experimenting with multiple tech solutions — dozens, in fact.  One involves a Ramsay Highlander harvester that cuts lettuce and spinach with a jet of water rather than requiring a worker to bend down and cut the vegetables with a knife. However, that requires lettuce rows that are mathematically precise and lettuce heads that are evenly spaced.

That led Taylor to work with Blue River Technology in Sunnyvale, Calif., which makes the Lettuce Bot, a machine that can thin 5,000 plants per minute within in a quarter of an inch spacing while running at four miles per hour.

Trump’s immigration policies “are going to force us to solve our labor problems faster,” said Bruce Taylor, CEO of Taylor Farms, one of the nation’s largest fresh-cut fruit and vegetable suppliers. Taylor spoke at the THRIVE AgTech Innovation Forum here Wednesday.

In contrast to large commodity crops such as soybeans, fruits and vegetables are mostly still worked and harvested by hand because of their specialty nature.

 

California has an estimated 330,000 farmworkers, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Manuel Cunha, president of the Fresno-based Nisei Farmers League, believes as many as 80% may be undocumented.

Should more stringent immigration rules go into effect, those workers will flee, Cunha said. “They’re worried about having their families busted, so they’re going to leave,” he said.

Of particular concern is a requirement in an early version of the proposed immigration executive order that would expand E-Verify, an Internet-based system for businesses to verify worker eligibility. Between that and what he sees as onerous regulation, he says farm labor costs could become unsustainable.

Agtech facing labor shortage challenge

The labor shortage is especially acute in California, which grows one-third of the nation's vegetables and two-thirds of its fruits and nuts, according to the state's Department of Food and Agriculture. In a state that produces $47 billion in agricultural products a year, farmers say labor is the No. 1 challenge.

"I have growers who have had to leave crops in the field to rot because they can't get pickers," said Karen Caplan, president and CEO of Frieda's, a specialty produce company based near Los Angeles.

Driscoll's, the nation's largest producer of berries, is working on a robotic strawberry picker with Spain-based AgroBot but it's several years away from being field-ready.

"Our customers want more berries, and we could grow them —  but we can't pick and pack them," said Kevin Murphy, CEO of Driscoll’s in Watsonville, Calif..

Like a human picker, the machine must be able to determine with a single glance whether a strawberry is fully ripe, properly shaped and worth picking. It uses optical recognition, taking pictures of the berry from multiple angles and crunching the data to determine if it's ripe.

To get the workforce it needs, Driscoll’s Murphy says it's having to rethink everything about how it grows the berries it sells. That includes growing outdoors on raised tables and on trellises to make picking more efficient and easier for a workforce that's not interested in backbreaking labor.

He thinks if suppliers can make farm work more appealing by judiciously using technology they’ll be able to get the workers they need.

“We've got to get aggressive in how we think about this, so we make the work easier and more efficient. There are people who will want to do it — there are lots of people who like to work outside, who don’t want to sit in an office all day,” he said.

The UFW agrees. "Right now, it’s a job of desperation. We want to see it become more attractive, a viable profession,” said Nicholson.

Western Growers, a consortium of fresh produce growers and packers, opened a Center for Innovation and Technology in Salinas in 2015 specifically to encourage startups to tackle the problems agriculture faces.

“We’re in a constant search for new technology because of the pressures on labor,” said Hank Giclas vice president for science and technology at the Center.

Many ag-tech companies are based in Europe, where high labor costs have long been a driver of technological solutions for farms.

Swiss-based Gamaya makes cameras can be mounted on drones or all-terrain vehicles and use algorithms to estimate expected crop yields. That’s crucial for high-value crops like grapes, berries and organics, where a field’s worth of produce is pre-sold  just before harvest.

It’s also labor-intensive when done by humans, who must scout through each field.

“You don’t need to send ten tractors out in the field, you just send the drone over,” said co-founder Igor Ivanov.

Gamaya plans to begin testing its system in the United States in April. Tech solutions for farms are growing in the United States “and with Trump’s policies I think it’s going to get much worse more quickly than we’d expected,” said Ivanov.

AgroBot, the Spain-based maker of the robotic berry pickers,  sees more potential given the current political climate in the United States.

“In the past, the solution was to move the crops to Mexico where labor was cheaper, but with Trump that’s getting more complicated, so now maybe only technology will be the solution,” said Juan Bravo, founder of AgroBot.

 

Gordie C. Hanna and the Square Tomato https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gordie_C._Hanna

 

 

 

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