How do big farmers hope to pick the next crop? Caution – but with robots

Human and machine have 10 seconds per plant. They must find the mature strawberries in the leaves, gently screw them off the rods and cut them into a plastic clamshell. Repeat, repeat, repeat before the seed destroys.

One February afternoon, they are working on one acre on a farm, the size of 454 football pitches: dozens of pickers collect produce the way people have for centuries – and a robot engineers say could replace most of them as soon as next year.

The future of agricultural work has come here in Florida, and promised to ease labor shortages and reduce the cost of food, or say the Harvite team, a nickname for the latest model from Harvest CROO Robotics automation company.

Harv is at the forefront of a national push to automate the way we collect items like blows and clamps, a challenge that has long flummoxed engineers.

Designing a Robot with A gentle touch is among the greatest technical hurdles to automate the American farm. Affordable fruits and vegetables are in danger without it, manufacturers say, due to a dizzying pool of workers.

"The labor force continues to shrink," said Gary Wishnatzki, a third-generation strawberry farmer. "If we don't solve this with automation, fresh fruit and veggies won't be affordable or even available to the average person."

The problem is so urgent that competitors tie together to fund Harv, which has raised $ 9 million from corporate behemoths such as Driscoll and Naturipe Farms, as well as from local farmers.

Wishnatzki, who created Harv with former Intel engineer Bob Pitzer, has one of the thoughts behind the TV hit BattleBots, investing $ 3 million of his own money.

The electronic picker is still quite bulky.

During a test drive last year, Harv gathered 20 percent strawberries on each plant without accident. This year's goal: Harvest half of the fruit without crushing or dropping anything. The human success rate is close to 80 percent, making Harv an underdog in this competition.

But Harv does not need a visa or sleep or sick days. The machine looks like a horizontally rolling semitruck.

Look under and see 1[ads1]6 smaller steel robots bouncing up strawberries with spinning, flap-like fingers, controlled by camera eyes and flashing lights.

Manufacturers say it becomes harder to hire enough people to harvest crops before they rot. Fewer seasonal workers come from Mexico, the largest supplier of American farmworkers. Fewer Americans will bend all day in a field, the farmers say, even when they offer higher salaries, free housing, and recruitment bonuses.

The number of agricultural employees in the United States is expected to remain over the next seven years, according to the latest Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts. As "productivity-enhancing technologies" that are mature in the mechanism, farms will demand fewer people, even as the demand for crops grows, the government's researchers wrote.

Production underwent a similar development. US factories have increased production over the last two decades with a smaller workforce, thanks to machines that improve efficiency.

A harrow is programmed to perform the work of 30 people. The machine swings over a dozen rows of plants at the same time, picking five strawberries every second and covering 8 acres a day.

This potential is becoming increasingly attractive to manufacturers, saying that Trump administration's tighter immigration policies squeeze the supply

About half of the country's 850,000 farm workers are not legal in the US, according to 2016 Department of Labor data, the latest available.

Agricultural analysts say labor shortages are already forcing up wages.

Average salary for farmworkers rose from 2014 to 2018 faster than wider economy employees, and jumped from $ 11.29 to $ 13.25, according to Ministry of Agriculture figures.

Agricultural economists at Arizona State University last year estimated that if farmers lost their indeterminate labor completely, wages would have to increase by 50 percent to replace them – and th

Then there are other rising costs.

As of 2025, all the farms in the California nation's largest fresh food producer – pay their employees overtime after eight hours a day instead of 10.

"Automation is the long-term solution, given the household's reluctance to do these jobs, "said Tim Richards, the Morrison head of agribusiness at the WP Carey School of Business at ASU.

Wishnatzki said he lost about $ 1 million due to destruction last year. He said he pays experienced pickers about $ 25 an hour.

Harv wanted to reduce the need for field work, said Wishnatzki, but it would also create new jobs.

"We need people to clean, sanitize and repair the machines," he said.

Some workers see that plan with anxiety and skepticism.

"I see the robot and think," Maybe we shouldn't have a job anymore, "said Antonio Vengas, 48, one of the approximately 600 employees in the yard with Harv.

Vengas moved to Florida 15 years ago from the The Mexican state of Oaxaca makes about $ 25 an hour. About 75 percent of his co-workers are Mexicans on seasonal work.

They all make good money, he said. They are motivated.

"People can choose strawberries without hurting them, "he said." They know which ones are too small or messy. Machines Can't Do It. "

Workgroups also doubt that robots are prepared for the job.

" A machine cannot harvest delicate grapes, strawberries, or fruit without destroying the perfect presentation required by consumers and the food industry, Giev Kashkooli, Political and Legislative Director of United Farm Workers of America, representing about 20,000 farm workers across the country.

Trade unions are not against technological advances, but Kashkooli added.

"Robotics can play a role in making the job less repugnant and play a role in helping people make more money," he said.

Out West, engineers at Washington State University are working on local farmers to test an apple picker that has 12 mechanical arms.

It drives down orchard rows, snaps pictures of trees. A computer brain scans the images and finds the fruit. The arms grip and lower the apples on a conveyor belt.

Expect to see this technology on the market over the next three years, said Manoj Karkee, associate professor at the School Center for Precision and Automated Agricultural Systems.

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

"We all know that we must go in this direction," said Karkee. "The last success of apple picking was the invention of the ladder."

The robot rarely does the products. But today, a robotic apple pickup costs at least $ 300,000 – too much for most budgets.

On the day, Harv is tested, the farmers and researchers come in three buses to Wishnatzki's farm. They have come from Canada, Australia, Germany, Switzerland and across the United States. Curiosity hangs in the air as the hills circle overhead.

Blaine Staples, an Alberta strawberry wreck, goes through dirt to the machine, which houses when it scratches fruit. Thousands of people around him crush the ground. The machine's arms go to work with the exclamation of awe and disbelief from spectators.

"This is pretty much the new industrial revolution," Staples said.

His Canadian farm is small compared to Wishnatzki's 600 acres. But he could see himself renting Harv for a season – as long as it can be compared to his current payroll costs.

Under Harv's proposed business model, farmers would only pay for the fruit the machine picks at the same rate as they pay seasonal workers.

A couple of strawberry routes over, Doug Carrigan, a farmer in North Carolina, are in the group with their eyes locked on Harv.

"It doesn't care if it's a Sunday or a holiday," Carrigan said. "The machine will work anyway."

He pays his workers between $ 10 and $ 14 hours. They are mostly local people.

"Many Americans have been lazy," Carrigan said. "They want a paycheck. They don't want a job."

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

Behind the crowd of farmers, a team of engineers look at the screen of a flat screen TV in a white trailer, their makeshift command center. Cameras in Harv give them a close-up.

The lights are flashing. The 16 smaller robots spin, piano strawberries. The engineers compare them to anchoring feet, paddling furiously.

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

Everything seems to run smoothly. No stress-eating oatmeal cakes they ordered.

"No fault!" Figueroa tends to be loud.

"Knock on wood", another engineer response.

In another part of the field, far from promotion, pickers work as they always have worked.

It's 80 degrees outside, but they have long sleeves, pants and scarves under the eyes to block the sun. They bend over, pick the strawberries and release them into plastic boxes.

Then they spread through the rows of the plants to a guide who scans in each package. They are paid by the package. Braking means losing money.

Parked nearby is an old school bus that gives them free work. Most of the pickers live in homes that Wishnatzki provides.

Santiago Velasco, 65, has been working here for 35 years and has done almost every job: picking, digging, watering.

Harv is a newcomer who does not concern him

"I don't think it will work because people know how to pick," he said, "and they go faster."

His prediction remained on demo day.

The robot found more than half of strawberries on each plant, but the fruit this season was greater than expected. A gang of tumbled from Harv's claws – red and juicy and now gone.

Engineers are not sure how many – they have to watch hours of video. They can't be sure Harv hit this year's goal. But they are sure the machine can get it right next year.

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History by Danielle Paquette, The Washington Post

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