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July 21, 2022

The Promise of Agtech

It was a glorious June morning. D’Arrigo California CEO John D’Arrigo and the company’s tech guy, Andy Holtz, Director of Mechanized Equipment Development, were riding on the front end of a working romaine harvester as it moved through a pristine field of beautiful heads of lettuce.

Directly underfoot were a number of cameras feeding images of the romaine crop into a computer, which was digitizing those photos to find the exact center of each. Within a few seconds, the computer would send a message to one of several robotic arms equipped with a cone-like, stainless steel cylinder and a cutting blade. The robotic arm would situate the cone over the center of the romaine head and clamp down as the blade would cut the head at its butt. The robotic arm would then place the captured head on a conveyor belt that would take it to a companion truck equipped with an automatic bagger that would place three heads in what would become a familiar romaine heart three pack. In between, there were a handful of farmworkers overseeing the operation at each step offering human touch when needed.

On this particular day, the automated process was not perfect as the robotic cones mishandled a head here and there. But a look back at the 80-inch bed that it was traversing revealed that the field was picked sufficiently clean to warrant the excitement exhibited by the two D’Arrigo executives. Holtz later reported that the missed head or two were the result of a loose bolt. “Big problems often have simple solutions,” he wrote in an email, attaching a video taken the next day of the harvester operating without a glitch.“The video shows the performance of the robots after finding the one critical bolt that had loosened up. It just so happened to be attached to our steering sensor! Once tightened up, we pressed a few buttons for alignment, and our system started to unzip this field of romaine hearts very efficiently.”

John D’Arrigo revealed that this machine is in competition with another romaine harvester D’Arrigo has developed that uses different technology to accomplish the same task. Whichever one proves to be the most efficient and cost effective will get the nod, and D’Arrigo will build what they need to accomplish the task of harvesting their romaine fields with less labor.

Holtz pointed to another harvester across the field that is the traditional winged unit used throughout the lettuce fields of California and Arizona. That harvester has some packers riding on the equipment while pickers are walking through the field cutting the romaine heads by hand and placing them on conveyor belts to deliver them to the packers. Over the years, those harvesters have been updated and configured with some labor-saving devices, but they still represent a labor-intensive operation. Holtz said that traditional harvester has a crew that is supposed to top 30 members but often it falls short and operates with fewer farmworkers because of lack of available labor. The robotic harvester and the companion bagging truck are utilizing about a dozen workers to pick, pack, palletize and transfer the pallets to another truck that butts up next to it to take the pallets to the cooler as they are filled.

D’Arrigo has no doubt that an automated harvester, as well as other mechanical harvesters being developed for other crops the company grows and markets, will be used extensively someday, sooner than later. He said the industry has no choice.

“Six or seven years ago, I saw the handwriting on the wall,” he said. “Lack of labor was going to be the dominant issue.”

Even before the coronavirus experiences of the past two years that led to much disruption on the labor front, agriculture was facing chronic labor shortages. Passing immigration reform has been a stalled endeavor for 30 years and there is no doubt that fewer workers are available for farm work. D’Arrigo established a mechanical engineering department on his ranch and he staffed it with people who could envision and build labor-saving devices.

D’Arrigo California has mechanized many different operations. It has equipment that can automatically plant seeds, weed and thin. It has automated much of its irrigation work including laying and removing drip tape, employing mulch film and moving irrigation pipe around a field. It is working on the romaine harvester as well as one to aid in the harvesting of broccoli. Holtz said its broccoli rabe harvester is no longer in the experimental phase as it has several machines in use or on order. Much of the company’s rapini [rabe] is already being mechanically harvested and packed. D’Arrigo noted that there are 450 rapine stems in one carton…that’s a lot of hand labor that has been replaced.

He believes that it is imperative that agriculture continue on a fast track to automation. Not only does it reduce the need for labor, but the industry will have a better chance of attracting more skilled workers to the jobs created by the adoption of high-tech machines. D’Arrigo has been on a mission to convince educators at the university level that they should be training the ag workers of the future who will need to be tech-savvy to operate and fix this advanced equipment.