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Farmers look to replace Hispanic field workers with robots

Facing a shrinking pool of field workers, farmers are looking to automate harvests. In most cases, it's not possible - yet.
25 Jul 2016 – 10:37 AM EDT

SALINAS, California – The summer morning fog hangs over the rows of lettuce, so straight they look like they were drawn with a ruler. The grey blanket is good protection for the pickers who crouch between the deep green rows, but they all wear long-sleeved jackets and hats. They know the sun will rise soon.

Drivers speeding by on the road from Monterrey see only the multi-colored silhouettes of Latinos, men and women, among the crops. Ten minutes away, the center of town has been taken over by two huge white tents, site of the 2016 Forbes AgTech Summit, a conference for farmers, big agricultural companies like Monsanto and Land O'Lakes, businesses selling new technology for farmers and a few risk investors.

At the conference, there's a lot of discussion about one issue in particular: how to reduce dependence on human labor. The shortage of field hands, largely because of restrictions on immigration, is one of the leading challenges in the agricultural industry. And farmers are hoping that technological innovation taking place in Silicon Valley, barely two hours away, can help fix the problem.

“There are entrepreneurs over there who are geniuses,” said Tom Nassif, president of Western Growers, an association of 2,000 farmers in California, Arizona and Colorado. “We have to speed up the development of mechanization, of robotics.”

MEXICANS IN THE LAND OF STEINBECK

Salinas is the heart of the region known as America's Salad Bowl. It's the area that author John Steinbeck wrote about in East of Eden, about the hard lives of field workers.

Field workers today are predominantly Mexicans and Central Americans, and most of their work is manual. But farmers say it's harder to find farm hands every day, even though they are paying more. They blame the absence of U.S. immigration reform that would allow in more guest workers, but they also say that young Mexicans now have more opportunities to find jobs at home.

“That's wonderful to know, but it does have a negative impact on the U.S. labor force,” said Nassif.

Paying the field hands more is not the answer, farmers and businesspeople say, because the H-2A visa program for temporary agricultural workers creates uncertainty over whether the workers will be available when they're needed.

Harold McClarty, with the HMC Farms company in California, said he lost crops this year “simply because we could not get the workers we needed.”

“We are almost at the point of bankruptcy, when we need a combination of technology and workers that will allow us to remain competitive,” he added. “I can't continue raising the price of my products.”

I, ROBOT PICKER

That's why HMC is incorporating technology everywhere it can. It's easier in the packing plants, where the handling of fruit and vegetables is more defined. But in the fields, there are delicate crops that for now must rely on pickers who select the right fruit or vegetable and handle it carefully.

“The dexterity of the hand that picks romaine lettuce or grapes, the capacity of the eye to distinguish quality” are indispensable, said Sammy Duda of Duda Farm Fresh Foods, which operates in the United States, Latin America and Europe. “But the number of people willing to do it is falling. Salaries rise, but the labor supply shrinks.”

Solving the labor supply problem offers a profitable business opportunity. But Duda acknowledged that farmers often are not even aware of existing technologies that can help.

Stanford University, NASA's Ames Research Center and the headquarters of Google, Facebook and Apple are located just two hours away from Salinas. Judging from the lack of connections, they might as well be in another country.

ADVANCES IN RESEARCH

The first interactions between the digital and agricultural worlds are just getting off the ground. The Forbes AgTech Summit drew companies that monitor crop health from airplanes or drones, and one that uses drones to predict yields. Other companies are using genetic engineering to increase yields, and selling digital tools to improve the management of agricultural operations.


Taylor Farms, one of the leading companies in the region, is testing the products of Soft Robotics, a Massachusetts startup that is developing robotic arms with “soft hands.” Its rubber fingers can handle strawberries and other fruit without damaging them.

“I have 14,000 jobs that I need to automate,” said Bruce Taylor, head of Taylor Farms. He hopes to buy hundreds of robots from the startup, he added.

Another effort seeks to create more startups in the agricultural field. Thrive Accelerator , for example, is a Salinas “agtech” company created by SVG Partners, an investment company. It seeks to attract entrepreneurs from other regions and countries to work with Salinas agricultural companies on innovative technologies.

Some technologies that replace field hands are already available. “Look at the machine out front,” Frank Maconachy, president of Ramsay Highlander, told conference attendees, referring to a spinach harvester the size of a dump truck. “You used to need a labor force of 30 to do the work it does.”

His company, based near Salinas, is starting to use robotic technology to build harvesters that will be able to drive themselves and replace many field workers. But he acknowledged that Ramsay Highlander is still far from fixing the problem of labor shortages.

“We have to keep innovating,” Maconachy said, “but this will continue for 20 years or more.”

LOOKING FOR INVESTMENTS

Maconachy said he and other agricultural business leaders would like to see big-time risk capitalists in Silicon Valley invest more in the development of farming technologies.

“It's going to be expensive, but in the long run we will see a return on investment that will compensate them handsomely,” he said.

Dan Harburg, a Soft Robotics executive, agreed. “We wish we could bring 50 investors from Boston and Silicon Valley to the fields, to see the problems they face,” he said.


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