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Growers look to robotics to help with shrinking ag workforce

Growers and robotic engineers discussed a problem plaguing many farmers, how to make up for a shrinking workforce?

“You see a lot of employees moving from one farm to the next for a number of reasons and it’s not always the pay,” said David Mancera with Kitchen Table Advisors. “I would say that it’s primarily the treatment.”

forbes AgTech Summit panelist and JSM grower Javier Zamora said the dwindling amount of workers can be attributed to fear of deportation due to immigration crackdowns and an aging ag workforce that’s not being replaced.

“I’m kind of ok but some of my friends that have 100, 200, 300 acres are definitely really, really short,” said Zamora. “Some of them have like 30, 40 percent less workforce than what they had in the past, so that’s frightening.”

Zamora said if the trend continues, farmers will have to decrease the size of their land, which means less food to go around and higher prices at the check-out line.

“That’s probably the only option we have,” said Zamora. “Then you might see more food coming in from other countries unfortunately.”

Industry experts said for now automation is one promising solution, using robots to plant and cut row crops to make up for the lack of human hands.

“We’re not necessarily replacing human labor,” said Scott Jantz with Harvest CROO Robotics. “We’re gonna be retraining a lot of our workers to then run these machines in the field.”

Growers said their dream robot is one that picks strawberries because harvesting the fruit is very labor intensive.

“These have to be picked usually by hand every three days which requires a tremendous amount of labor,” said Jantz.

Harvest CROO Robotics is far along in the process of developing a strawberry picker. Every robot has two eyes and it sees the difference between a ripe and unripe strawberry, and decides which ones to pick and which ones to leave.

“Plant many more acres of strawberries and hopefully save the industry,” said Jantz. “I think at this point strawberries may become a luxury item if we don’t fix this problem.”

Some argue raising worker wages might help resolve the workforce shortage. But some farmers said that’s only a short term solution and calling for a more sustainable path to growing in the future.

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