Having overwhelmed the urban way of life, technology is now spreading its tentacles across rural America, what with robotics taking over the agricultural sector in a big way.
More and more autonomous machines are performing a host of labor-intensive jobs such as planting, plowing, weeding, pruning and harvesting, to name a few.
The speed with which agricultural mechanization is happening is, in part, due to the Trump administration’s stringent immigration policies – one of the contributors to the acute shortage in the supply of farm workers.
But again, blaming Trump for all of America’s woes would be a tad unfair, in that farm labor shortage was a reality even before he took over the Oval Office, though there is no denying the fact that his policies may have somewhat compounded the problem.
A 2017 survey of agricultural labor availability, conducted by the California Farm Bureau Federation, found that farmers across the Golden State were facing difficulty getting enough workers to fulfill a variety of their agricultural requirements, including “planting, cultivating and harvesting food and other crops.”
About 55 percent of the surveyed growers reported experienced worker shortages, while 69 percent of those who depended on seasonal workers reported “shortages of varying degrees,” especially where the work required the “most intensive hand labor, such as harvesting tree fruits and grapes.”
“The findings are consistent with results from a similar 2012 survey conducted by CFBF, in which over half of all respondents reported shortages,” the survey report said.
The shortage could also not be blamed on any lack of alacrity on the part of farmers in terms of recruiting efforts and offering higher wages and other incentives; the reality is that there just weren’t enough potential employees available to hire.
“The survey respondents included farm employers growing a diverse range of crops and commodities across the state, including both labor-intensive crops and those that do not require significant employee involvement,” said the report.
“A large majority of the respondents grow tree fruit, winegrapes or nuts; respondents also included growers of table grapes, vegetables, rice, wheat, corn, hay and nursery crops, as well as dairy and livestock producers.”
It, therefore, makes sense for growers to turn to mechanized and robotic alternatives to address the worsening labor situation, and they are not complaining as they discover that the transition can drive better yields and reduce their input costs.
An increasing number of large farming companies are, in fact, championing the automation cause by investing in technology firms and by testing these next-gen farm robotics made possible by advancements in processor technology.
“We’re seeing more and more of a move towards just technology in general, whether it’s robotics or mechanization,” Ryan Jacobsen – a wine grape grower and CEO of the Fresno County Farm Bureau – told CNBC last year.
“We’ve seen some incredible improvements there, and for us to remain competitive in California just because of so many areas of cost and the lack of needed individuals to help us bring in the harvest we’re going to have to rely upon this technology,” Jacobsen added.
Fendt, a German manufacturer of agricultural equipment, has been developing high-precision small Xaver robots that are designed to operate in swarms 24/7.
These field robots of the near future are light-weight, mobile and cloud-controlled, with fewer sensors, robust control units and a clear hardware structure, making them “extremely reliable and productive.”
The Fendt website says that “the use of a large number of small, identical robots operating in a swarm enables smooth running of the job, even in the event of the failure of a single unit.”
“Their light weight results in a high level of safety and negligible soil compaction,” claims the website.
Then there are harvest robots that use electronic sensors and techniques based on technologies used in advanced driver-assist systems and semi-autonomous cars.
“What I tell people is, we’re like self-driving cars,” Gary Wishnatzki – a Florida strawberry farmer and co-founder of Harvest Croo Robotics – told CNBC.
“We don’t have to be perfect. We just have to be better than the humans — and believe me humans damage a lot of fruit, too, when they’re picking and packing it,” he added.
To give you an idea of how efficient these agricultural robots can be, a single strawberry-harvesting robot can autonomously do the work of 30 farm employees, autonomously picking clean a 25-acre strawberry field in a matter of three days.
While the burgeoning agricultural mechanization industry and the advent of farming robotics are expected to drastically cut down the need for human intervention, there will always be a place for skilled workers.
“I don’t think automation or robotics will ever replace the farm worker,” Tom Nassif – CEO Western Growers, the trade association for agricultural producers in the West and Southwest – told CNBC.
“It will certainly cut down on the number of people we need to plant, thin and harvest our crops,” he added.
Precision farming, an offspring of the agriculture-technology marriage, is expected to become a $240 billion market by 2050, according to Goldman Sachs.
Lawrence De Maria, an analyst at William Blair, compares the surge in precision farming using advanced robotics to the Green Revolution, in so far as driving agricultural productivity is concerned.
“I think that this is the next great wave of agricultural productivity,” De Maria told Investor’s Business Daily.
He added: “The implementation of precision agriculture with automation will drive yields and reduce input costs for growers.
“It could rival the Green Revolution and mechanization as great drivers of agricultural productivity.”
Europe is not far behind when it comes to innovative agricultural technologies, what with Spanish company Agrobot working on a strawberry harvester, with as many as twelve robotic arms that can pick fruits more deftly than human hands can ever manage, and what’s more is that the machines are capable of unmanned navigation, as well.
England-based Dogtooth Technologies is developing its own version of a robotic fruit- harvester capable of not only autonomously locating and harvesting fruits that are ripe and ready for the picking but also grading their quality.
So, for better or for worse, an agricultural revolution is imminent; in fact, it’s happening as you read this!