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Speakers at the Agribusiness Management Conference included, from left, Mike O’Hara of JBT Corp.; Jim Marderosian of Bee Sweet Citrus; and Dave Stinson of Honeywell Integrated.

Human element biggest challenge in agricultural automation

Drivers for increased automation include rising wages, a dwindling labor supply sparked by tightened immigration policy, and more retirees in the U.S.

For years, we’ve had machines which sort fruit by size and maturity. More recently, newer machines have quickly and with precision palletized the product, taking much of the drudgery out of the job and speeding up the process.

But aside from the machines and the related automation, it’s the human element – the needed people skills – that perhaps poses the greatest challenge as agriculture is tasked with feeding more mouths more efficiently and probably with fewer people and less land.

This appeared to be the consensus of a panel which discussed the future of automation in Central California agriculture during the 36th annual Agribusiness Management Conference held in Fresno, presented by Fresno State’s Jordan College of Agricultural Sciences and Technology. The conference theme was ‘California Agriculture, The View in 2025.’

Some of the drivers for the increased appetite for automation were outlined by Dave Stinson, vice president for western regional sales for Honeywell Integrated which specializes in materials handling.

Among the drivers included rising wages, a dwindling labor supply sparked by tightened immigration policy and more manufacturing jobs in Mexico, and an increase in the number of retirees in the U.S. for every 10 active workers – two retirees today, four by 2030.

Stinson said investments in robotics and artificial intelligence is skyrocketing. He cited a $1.95 billion investment in robotics startups in 2018, an eight-fold increase from 2014.

He noted considerable strides in robots working hand-in-hand with humans, given greater sensing and perception capabilities. Stinson said robots are designed with more flexibility. Instead of running on fixed paths, they can do jobs without running into each other or the humans working there.

Stinson said returns on investment can be in the three-to-four-year range.

Mike O’Hara, JBT Corp.’s project management lead, discussed food industry machinery and chemical processes used to propel automation. Its operations include an engineering manufacturing facility in Madera and a citrus equipment sales and service center at Visalia.

O’Hara discussed the steps the company, formerly called FMC Corp., has taken to address almond pasteurizing and the citrus processing of juices and oils. He said technology in the food industry is rapidly catching up with other areas of manufacturing, and some are asking, “I bought it - now how do I operate it?”

Service support, including online assistance, is a key, and many customers are asking for help to stay in compliance with food safety requirements, said O’Hara. Clients want to make sure employees are qualified to run equipment.

“It doesn’t matter how much technology grows,” O’Hara said, “We need people, competent people…People who support the technology that are the biggest challenge.”

Panelist Jim Marderosian, Bee Sweet Citrus’ founder and president, discussed automation at an event sponsored by Fresno State. He’s a graduate of Fresno State, and presenter at the program on automation. Last February (2017), he presented the university with a state-of-the-art citrus packing line.

Valued at $600,000, the packing line can inspect, clean, wash, dry, sort, box, label, and seal fruit harvested from the 1,000 acre campus farm. Sections of the equipment can process up to 16 pieces of fruit per second. Marderosian and his company continue to reach out to university students for internships.

At the automation event, he discussed realizing the opportunities afforded by the new technology and careers in areas including human resources, accounting, and food safety.

Marderosian started the Fowler-headquartered company in 1987. Today, Bee Sweet Citrus farms 10,000 acres of land in Arizona and California, including the Central Valley, Central Coast, and Southern California.

He discussed labor shortages and wage increases and emphasized, and said the move to more technology use does not necessarily eliminate workers.

“In our case, all we did was that we were able to run a lot faster,” Marderosian said. “By using the same amount of employees, were able to use the same facility without adding on.”

He conceded it meant changing the workforce and added training so workers could take on changed tasks. Marderosian said colleges assisted in this transition. The citrus leader said those entering the business need to understand it, and those adapting new technologies need to understand it as well.

“You have to take your time - you have to do your homework - you have to understand what this technology is bringing back to you. And you have to implement it in a way that gives you return on investment.”

Technology is changing so fast, Marderosian explained, that the needed term to realize a return on investment is often five-to-seven years.

Marderosian and Stinson emphasized the need for good communication. Stinson said “explosive growth” in automation has made it a challenge to find people qualified in mechanical and electrical engineering who are also good communicators.

The automation panel discussion was moderated by Alex Alexandrou of the Jordan College of Agricultural Sciences and Technology. He said Bee Sweet’s packing line gift to the university “will better prepare Fresno State students for food safety and agricultural system management careers far into the future.”

Also speaking at the event was R. Dennis Moon, national sales executive with the Specialty Asset Management Group at U.S. Trust, Bank of America Private Wealth Management. He said, “If agriculture is to continue feeding the world it needs to become more like manufacturing as it utilizes technology to reduce waste and precision ag techniques around water, fertilizer, and pesticides.”

Moon pointed to the promise of India as a consumer of U.S. agricultural products.

“In less than a decade, India will surpass China as the most populous nation,” he said, noting that its demographics include a good share of the world’s millennial population. Moon is “bullish” on agriculture.

Opening speaker Terry Barr, chief economist at CoBank, was likewise optimistic. Yet he cited challenges which come with uncertainties over what renegotiations of trade agreements could mean, along with a lack of consensus on addressing issues created by aging populations worldwide.

Barr called himself a “a fan” of revisiting trade agreements including the North American Free Trade Agreement or NAFTA, “but perhaps with less rhetoric.”

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