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Western Growers to lead global push to automate fruit harvests

Burro Burro_Grapes_Robot (003).jpg
Burro markets autonomous, rugged cart robots that follow farm workers in the field and can haul goods for them and are currently used in table grape production in California.
Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission makes a $200,000 donation toward the effort.

A West Coast produce organization wants to teach the specialty-crop world how to automate its harvests, and a tree fruit group in Washington state has pledged $200,000 toward the effort.

The Irvine, Calif.-based Western Growers on Feb. 11 launched an ambitious Global Harvest Automation Initiative, in which dozens of international partners will seek to automate 50% of harvests over the next 10 years.

The participants, which will range from tech giants like Microsoft and Trimble to companies in France, Israel, New Zealand and the United Kingdom, aim to speed the development of crop-specific robots and put them in the hands of growers, they said during a day-long rollout event at the International Agri-Center in Tulare, Calif., set to coincide with the World Ag Expo.

The initiative seeks to solve two of growers’ most pressing challenges – food security and lack of harvest labor, said Walt Duflock, Western Growers’ new vice president of technology.

“These are among the biggest challenges facing growers today,” Duflock said to open the summit, which was streamed on YouTube. “Every year fields are prepped, seeds are planted, crops are irrigated, thinned, weeded and monitored for pests and foreign objects, and after all that effort some of those fields are unable to be harvested because there’s no available harvest labor. At the same time, regulatory costs from overtime, wage changes and heat rules are driving the cost of available labor up.”

Costs rising rapidly

Duflock said labor costs are expected to rise as much as 70 percent over the next five years.

“So both of these forces … are combining to make the need for harvest automations more needed than ever,” he said. Right now, only a tiny percentage of farms use automation because of cost and logistics, he noted.

The effort got an immediate boost from the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission, which committed $200,000 over three years toward it. Ines Hanrahan, the commission’s executive director, told the Tulare gathering that 13 billion apples must be picked in Washington each year but the industry lacks the equipment to pick it without using manual labor.

The commission in early February signed on to a separate initiative called Fruit Orchard of the Future, in which universities, fruit growers and technology companies in the U.S. and the Netherlands are trying to facilitate automation of global tree fruit harvests. The initiative includes scientists from Washington State University, Oregon State University and the University of California.

Western Growers’ mission “will provide scientific solutions to keep farms profitable and sustainable,” Hanrahan said. “I believe this is a mission we can all agree on. I am convinced that together we can get there.”

A four-part effort

The initiative is comprised of four key projects, according to Duflock:

  • A “technology stack” will help startups integrate with industry-standard tractors, robot arms, sensors and other equipment to accelerate development of fruit-picking accessories to “save start-ups quarters to years of development time with proper implementation,” Duflock said.
  • A “cohort” of startups will be selected and promoted with “extra time and investment from us,” he said, so growers aren’t inundated with scores of company pitches and can focus on a handful that are right for their operations. This project will include mentorship for startups and growers, he added.
  • A “road map” will identify startups by crop type that are further along in their development than others for that crop. Western Growers will publish the first road map this summer and update it quarterly as more startups advance, Duflock said.
  • Finally, the initiative will quantify the impact of startups on an industry-wide scale “which is going to be tricky,” he said, “because we all know that farmers and startups look at data differently.” Western Growers will have an annual report starting this year identifying “where the baseline is in harvest automation and how we are doing,” he explained.

A key part of the initiative will be the technology stack, which will help startups cut costs and speed rollout by focusing on accessories to industry-standard equipment, he said.

“We’re saying the way we speed all this up is primarily by enabling the startups to no long build everything by themselves,” Duflock told Farm Progress in an interview. “They build the robot arm, the basket mechanism, the tractor to move it around the field. All of that is expensive.”

A future of robotics

The initiative comes as farmers across the country are looking to a future where robotics may play a bigger role in the harvest of fruit, vegetable and nursery crops. A virtual National Ag Tech Forum in January featured Davis, Calif.-based Advanced Farm, which has developed a robotic strawberry harvester that uses soft grippers and tractor-mounted cameras to determine the ripeness of berries and safely harvest them without damaging the fruit.

But “there’s more to be done than just building robots,” Duflock said in the interview. Plant genetics can make fruit varieties that can be picked more easily, he said. “A combination of farming practices and genetics make any automation more effective.”

Duflock said the only “win” Western Growers is seeking is to get automation to its growers faster, and the organization is working with key global players to accomplish the feat. Among the presentations in Tulare were automation updates from Bayer CropScience and the Citrus Research Board and a discussion on robotics applications for harvesting with a representative from FarmWise, which was recently listed in Time magazine’s Best Inventions in 2020.

Helm, Calif., farmer Don Cameron, who chairs the California Board of Food and Agriculture, grows about 25 crops from vines to trees at his Terranova Ranch. He’s been an advocate for finding solutions to grower problems, enabling his almond orchard to be one of the first to be used for groundwater recharge trials.

“I’ve been pushing hard on this (automation) for quite some time because without innovations in replacement for labor on the farm, we really don’t have a good future,” Cameron said at Western Growers’ event. “We’re seeing declines in just getting labor to do the manual harvests we have right now. With all the regulation we deal with as farmers in California, we look at the possible labor savings and efficiencies that programs like this could bring to all growers.”

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