Automation is coming to the farm, and tomorrow’s agriculture could look very different from today’s.
Finding laborers to cultivate and harvest intensive crops like strawberries or lettuce, has always challenged ag companies. The work is tedious, the conditions are difficult, and pay has to stay low to maintain competitive prices at the marketplace.
Lately, that shortage has become acute in California, which produces about half the nation’s fresh fruit and vegetables. Forty percent of growers reported they couldn’t find enough help.
That unmet demand has sent ag strategists scrambling for answers. Some have recommended reforming immigration policy to allow more foreign laborers to provide support in seasonal crunches.
Increasingly, ag companies aren’t waiting for a national consensus to develop on a divisive issue like immigration. They’re looking into more long-term solutions. They’re turning to technology. In fact, 56% of farmers surveyed revealed they had mechanized some parts of their farm. Half of those who began buying up equipment attributed the move to labor deficits.
That means growers in California and elsewhere may be more receptive to a rising tide of automation on the farm. Robots may become a solution to the labor crisis in agriculture today–and for the foreseeable future.
To see how robots are already changing the landscape of farm labor, consider some of the technology already in prototype.
If you’ve ever maintained a garden, you know how demanding weeding and picking can be. Multiply that burden over thousands of acres, and you get a sense for why it’s so hard to find laborers to weed and harvest, say, strawberries. You also start to appreciate the need to find a solution to those work shortages.
A number of different firms have developed see-and-spray robots that are programmed to recognize the difference between weeds and crops. They can spray with great precision, never get tired, and operate at night. They not only replace missing labor–they improve on its performance.
Or consider lettuce-thinning bots. A premium crop with high attrition over the growing season, lettuce is deliberately over-planted. Several weeks into the growing season, after it’s clear which plants remain viable, workers remove the rotten lettuce and replant the survivors in rows. It’s a time-consuming, arduous task.
Lettuce bots can automate this process. They can distinguish healthy plants from decaying ones, and are “trained” to remove the ones that won’t make it. These robots then replant in straight rows. What used to take a team of fifteen a whole day can now be accomplished in only a few hours with the lettuce bot.
Engineers are already developing similar technology to replace the notoriously tedious tasks of fruit-picking. They’ve had considerable success in automating milking, and many other farm chores.
Robotics, then, seems poised to help solve a growing labor crisis in agriculture.
But these successes raise some serious questions. Automating work will undoubtedly meet labor shortages, but also displace many who depend on this work for income. At the same time, there may be limits to what this technology can do, both ethically and logistically.
Make no mistake about it, though. The demand is there for automation, the technology is in development, and the farm of tomorrow is already here today.