August 15, 2023

Automatic for the People

The second year of Western Growers’ Specialty Crop Automation Report reveals an industry on the precipice of dramatic benefits to crops, the environment—and people.

Change may be spurred by an individual, but it is driven by the many. Progress is pushed by the cumulative efforts of people coming together, sharing their ideas and combining their actions. The need for adaptation to ever-shifting factors is a constant in agriculture.

While the pressures for change of the current generation of growers are vastly different than the ones who came before them, the needed characteristic of finding ways to adapt to those pressures is the same. Many growers have stories handed down from their grandparents or even their great-grandparents about the challenges their farm faced throughout the years, whether regulatory, pests or water, and many of those issues were addressed by previous generations with technology and innovation. Growers, innovators and trade organizations (like Western Growers) are actively working on the challenges of today, challenges that future generations will look back on and see the value of these efforts and solutions that they rely on just as growers rely on the ones that came before them.

Of the ways to tackle issues like labor shortage, water constraint, climate change and pests, one has a burgeoning presence in the strategy: automation.

In 2021, Western Growers Center for Innovation & Technology and consultant Roland Berger acted on the need to compile and report on the actions being made with automation within the agricultural space. The result was the launch of the Global Harvest Automation Initiative (GHAI) in February 2021 with the goal to “drive sustainable and domestic food security by accelerating harvest automation across the fresh produce industry, with the ambition of automating 50 percent of the U.S. harvest within 10 years.” A component of this initiative was the Global Harvest Automation Report (GHAR), which is an annual impact and market traction analysis to keep track of automation solutions in the specialty crop industry. Keeping track of automation solutions in the specialty crop industry is one of the key initiatives of GHAI. After the 2021 GHAR, it became clear that the scope of automation extended beyond harvesting. To account for the automation opportunities related to weeding, thinning, planting, spraying and more, the Global Harvest Automation Report was rebranded to the Specialty Crop Automation Report (SCAR).

The GHAI initiative carries the benefit of having a consolidated viewpoint to approach many of the issues that agriculture is facing and offers data-backed options to move toward solutions. As an ongoing effort, each report will build on the one that came before it, giving the advantage of seeing development and growth in automation adoption year-over-year. Those who add each report to their resource libraries every year will have valuable insight into automation trends readily available as technologies advance and gain adoption traction.

Growers have a history of seeking innovative solutions to challenges, and a 2022 grower survey indicated that labor availability, profitability and regulatory hurdles rank highest as key challenge areas. One of the tallest hurdles growers, packers and shippers are currently facing is a labor shortage, which is a challenge that comes from a culmination of sources. One source is an aging workforce, and the SCAR reports that this is an issue in both the U.S. and EU. The SCAR notes: “The number of managers aged below 35 declined more than any other age group…In 2016, just 5 percent of managers were under 35 [in the EU]. This suggests that younger generations are not joining the agricultural labor force at a rate at which they can replace retiring older generations. The flight of younger managers is akin to what happened in the U.S., where the average age of principal farm operators is now 58, up eight years from 1982.” The hope of automation as it relates to an aging workforce is two-fold; along with accounting for the lack of people there is also the hope that advancing the technological requirements of the industry will attract the younger generation to the sector, particularly for those whose families have already contributed so much to the success of growing operations in the past.

One of the remedies to fill the labor gap has been H-2A certifications, with the number of H-2A job certifications having grown more than 500 percent since 2005 and totaling 317,000 in 2021. According to the SCAR, “It is estimated that H-2A jobs now constitute approximately 10 to 15 percent of U.S. full-time equivalent jobs in crop agriculture.” But a growing dependency on H-2A certifications comes with its own intricacies. According to the SCAR, incorporating mechanization and automation of farm operations may decrease the reliance on H-2A, but the benefits of automation may take time to manifest.

The growing cost of labor is just one of the elements that contributes to a grower’s overall cost, though it’s a substantial one. “Growers indicate that labor typically accounts for more than 50 percent of their total production costs,” the SCAR notes, “and most expect labor costs to grow at 10-30 percent over the next three to five years.” So while the cost of automated innovation technology may come frontloaded, the ROI is measurable against rising expenses.

The developments happening in the world of automation are a display of the benefit of collaborative work with those who share a common objective. In this case, that objective is to increase efficiency. Organizations like JV Smith are putting the technology to work while also working with startups and innovators to make the technology useful in the field. One of the tools currently in use at JV Smith is the laser weeder from Carbon Robotics. According to the SCAR, the bulk of automation is happening in pre-harvest. Weeding is the most automated activity across all crop types, and hardware is the most popular investment method.

For JV Smith Companies, “We have our laser weeders,” said Kristen Smith Eshaya, President of JV Smith Companies, “and through a collaboration with our managers and Carbon Robotics, we have them weeding and thinning at the same time. We will also trial not spraying a pre-plant herbicide with the plan to use the laser weeder instead. We’re excited to always be looking for new ways to automate, be more efficient and grow a better crop.” The technology is a playable piece in navigating current circumstances. “We’re always looking for what’s going to be best for the crop, what’s going to be best for the people, and what’s going to be best for the environment,” said Smith Eshaya. “The more we can do with fewer passes on a piece of ground is ideal.”

The SCAR shows that more and more growers are investing in technology. Around 70 percent of participating growers indicated that they had invested in automation in 2022, with an average annual spend of $450,000-$500,000 per grower. With the up-front investment, grower operations are moving to alleviate some labor costs while freeing up employees to specialize in the technology or other more complicated and hard-to-automate roles. This effort is the pull that U.S. and Europe can use to keep or bring back production to the U.S. and Europe.

Specialty crop agriculture is a connected industry. The effort and push in one segment, in one company, benefits the many. “Our core competitors are also our friends,” said Smith Eshaya. “What we want to see more than anything is for demand to increase to make us all better off. I want to see a healthier world and I believe more consumption of fruits and vegetables is where we start. I don’t see my fellow farmer as my competitor, I see potato chips as my competitor. What I love most about farming is that all my co-workers and everyone I have met in the industry is passionate about what they do. Innovation is a necessity to continue doing what we love.”