How are big farmers hoping to pick the next crop? Carefully – but with robots



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The man and the machine have 10 seconds per plant. They must find the ripe strawberries in the leaves, gently twist the stems and slide them into a plastic shell. Repeat, repeat, repeat, before the fruit spoils.

One afternoon in February, they work about half a hectare in a farm the size of 454 football fields: dozens of pickers pick up their products as people have done for centuries – and a robot that, according to engineers, could replace most of them next year.

The future of agricultural work has arrived here in Florida, promising to address labor shortages and reduce food costs, says Harv's team behind the latest model of automation company Harvest CROO Robotics.

Harv is at the forefront of a national initiative to automate the way we collect bruising and crumbling merchandise, a challenge that has long been the ingenuity of engineers.

Designing a robot to touch is one of the biggest technical barriers to automating the American farm. According to producers, reasonably priced fruits and vegetables are threatened without this resource because of the shrinking pool of workers.

"The workforce is shrinking," said Gary Wishnatzki, third generation strawberry producer. "If we do not solve this with automation, fresh fruits and vegetables will not be affordable or even available to the average person."

The problem is so pressing that competitors are joining forces to fund Harv, which has raised about $ 9 million from companies such as Driscoll's and Naturipe Farms, as well as local farmers.

Wishnatzki, who created Harv with Bob Pitzer, a former Intel engineer, one of the original minds behind the TV hit of "BattleBots", has invested $ 3 million of its own funds .

The electronic selector is still pretty awkward.

Last year, Harv harvested 20% strawberries from each plant without incident. This year's goal is to harvest half the fruit without crushing it or dropping it. The human success rate is closer to 80%, making Harv the outsider of this competition.

But Harv does not need a visa, sleep or sickness. The machine looks like a horizontal rolling semitruck.

Take a look under and see 16 smaller steel robots picking up strawberries with rotating, claw-like fingers, guided by camera eyes and flashing lights.

Producers say that it is becoming increasingly difficult to hire enough people to harvest before decay. Fewer seasonal workers come from Mexico, the largest supplier of American farm workers. Fewer farmers want to spend the whole day in a field, even when they are offered higher wages, free housing and recruitment bonuses.

According to the latest Bureau of Labor Statistics forecast, the number of farm workers in the United States is expected to remain unchanged over the next seven years. As "productivity-enhancing technologies" mature in mechanization, farms will require less labor, even as demand for crops increases, government researchers write.

Manufacturing has evolved similarly. US factories have increased production over the past two decades with reduced labor, thanks to machines that improve efficiency.

A harv is programmed to do the work of 30 people. The machine travels at the same time over a dozen rows of plants, picking five strawberries per second and covering 8 hectares a day.

This potential is becoming more attractive to producers, who argue that Trump's more stringent immigration policies reduce the supply of seasonal workers as well as the workforce. undocumented.

About half of the country's 850,000 agricultural workers are not legally in the United States, according to 2016 Ministry of Labor data, the most recent available.

Agricultural analysts say the shortage of labor is already driving up wages.

From 2014 to 2018, the average wage of farm workers grew faster than that of employees in the entire economy, rising from $ 11.29 to $ 13.25, according to figures from the Ministry of Agriculture. l & # 39; Agriculture.

The agricultural economists at Arizona State University last year estimated that if farmers totally lose their undocumented labor, wages would rise by 50% to replace them – which would increase the prices of farm produce. 40%.

Then there are other rising costs.

Starting in 2025, all California farms – the country's largest producer of fresh produce – must pay their employees eight hours a day instead of 10 hours.

"Automation is the long-term solution, given the reluctance of domestic workers to accomplish these tasks," said Tim Richards, president of Morrison's Agri-Food Division at W.P. Carey School of Business at the USS.

Wishnatzki said he lost about a million dollars because of the deterioration of his content last year. He said that he was paying the experienced pickers at around $ 25 at the time.

Harv would reduce the need for field labor, Wishnatzki said, but would also create new jobs. Wish Farms, his family business, would train pickers to become technicians.

"People have to clean, sanitize and repair machinery," he said.

Some workers view this plan with anxiety and skepticism.

"I see the robot and I think we may have more work," said Antonio Vengas, 48, one of 600 farm workers at Harv.

Vengas moved to Florida 15 years ago from the Mexican state of Oaxaca and earns around $ 25 at the hour. About 75% of his colleagues are Mexicans holding a seasonal work visa.

They all earn a lot of money, he said. They are motivated.

"People can pick strawberries without hurting them," he said. "They know which ones are too small or rotten, machines can not do it."

The working groups also doubt that robots are prepared for work.

"A machine can not harvest table grapes, strawberries or delicate tree fruits without destroying the perfect presentation required by consumers and the retail industry," said Giev Kashkooli, Political and Legislative Director. United Farm Workers of America, representing about 20,000 farm workers across the country. the country.

Unions do not oppose technological advances, Kashkooli added.

"Robotics can help make work less painful and help people earn more money," he said.

In the West, Washington State University engineers are working with local farmers to test an apple picking machine with 12 mechanical arms.

He lowers rows of orchards and takes pictures of trees. A computer brain scans the images and finds the fruit. The arms grip and lower the apples on a treadmill.

Expect to see this technology on the market in the next three years, said Manoj Karkee, associate professor at the school's Automated and Precision Agricultural Systems Center.

Farmers struggling to hire workers wanted it "yesterday," he said.

"We all know that we have to go in that direction," said Karkee. "The latest advance in apple picking has been the invention of scale."

The robot rarely hurts the product. But to date, a robotic apple costs at least $ 300,000, which is too much for most budgets.

On the day Harv is put to the test, farmers and researchers arrive in three buses at Wishnatzki's farm. They come from Canada, Australia, Germany, Switzerland and the United States. Curiosity hangs in the air, like hawks circling above their heads.

Blaine Staples, a strawberry producer from Alberta, advances into the ground toward the machine, which whistles while clawing fruit. Dozens of people around him are squatting. The arms of the machine set to work in the midst of the exclamations of fear and disbelief of the spectators.

"It's pretty much the new industrial revolution," Staples said.

Its Canadian farm is tiny compared to the 600 acres of Wishnatzki. But he could be rented Harv for a season, as long as it's comparable to his current labor costs.

According to the business model proposed by Harv, farmers would pay only the fruits picked by the machine at the same rate as the seasonal work teams.

After a few rows of strawberries, Doug Carrigan, a farmer from North Carolina, is part of the group, staring at Harv.

"It does not matter whether it's a Sunday or a vacation," Carrigan said. "The machine will work independently."

He pays his workers between 10 and 14 dollars at the hour. They are mostly locals.

"Many Americans have become lazy," Carrigan said. "They want a salary, they do not want jobs."

Whenever you can automate work without sacrificing quality, "it's a win," he said.

Behind the crowd of farmers, a team of engineers watch the show on a flat-screen TV in a white trailer, their improvised command center. The cameras at Harv give them a close up.

The lights are flashing. The 16 smallest robots turn and scratch strawberries. Engineers compare them to duck feet, paddling furiously.

"The best view of the house," said Alex Figueroa, 24, director of machine vision.

Everything seems to be going well. No one is eating the oatmeal and grape cookies that they ordered with stress.

"No mistake!" Figueroa pleads out loud.

"Touch wood," replies another engineer.

In another part of the field, far from the tumult, the preparers work as they have always done.

It is 80 degrees outside, but they wear long sleeves, pants and scarves under the eyes to block the sun. They bend, pick strawberries and slide them into plastic cases.

Then they sprint through the lines of the plant until a supervisor, who analyzes each package. They are paid by the package. Slowing down, that is losing money.

Parked nearby is an old school bus, which transports them freely to work. Most gatherers live in the accommodations provided by Wishnatzki.

Santiago Velasco, 65, has been working here for 35 years and has practically done all the work: pluck, dig, irrigate.

Harv is a newcomer who does not concern him.

"I do not think it will work, because people know how to choose," he says, "and they go faster."

His prediction held the day of the demonstration.

The robot found more than half of the strawberries on each plant, but the fruit of this season was bigger than expected. A group fell from Harv's clutches – red and juicy and has now disappeared.

Engineers do not know how much – they have to watch hours of video. They can not be sure that Harv is reaching this year's target. But they are convinced that the machine will work well next year.

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Story by Danielle Paquette, The Washington Post

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