Automating 50% of harvest throughout the fruit, vegetable and nut industry within 10 years is the goal of the new Western Growers Global Harvest Automation Initiative (GHAI).
“What we’ve been able to do, and today’s assemblance is demonstrative of it, is collect the right players across the grower-shipper-processor, VC/investor and industry partner segments to envision what we can collectively do to both tackle the challenges that afflict the specialty crop industry and also create immense opportunity for those that are willing to take the dive,” said WG President/CEO Dave Puglia during the official launch event in Tulare, Calif., on February 11, 2021.
The GHAI is comprised of four key components:
• Harvest Automation Cohort: A cohort of automation startups will be selected to receive exclusive access to fresh produce farmers for field trials and mentoring.
• Top Harvest Automation Roadmap: A list of current harvest automation startups by crop type and in-market progress/traction will be distributed regularly.
• Tech Stack: A standard technology stack (method of helping companies apply existing technology to future robots) that will enable AgTech startups to scale faster in the four key areas of harvest automation—visioning; artificial intelligence/machine learning to determine which images (plants) to harvest and which not to; harvest mechanism (the robot arm); and a tractor to transport the robot.
• Impact Report: A comprehensive analysis on the impact of harvest automation on the specialty crop industry will be provided annually.
The GHAI launch event featured two panels to provide insight on the current state of automaton and what steps need to be taken in order for mechanization to advance. The tech panel—Candice Wilson (GreenVenus), Neill Callis (Turlock Fruit Company), Ted Batkin (Aequion), and Kathryn Van Weerdhuizen (Oxbo International Corporation)—shared what role they and like organizations can play to reduce the time and cost for startups to develop next generation harvest automation.
The growers panel, which included Josh Ruiz (Church Brothers), Don Cameron (Terranova Ranch), Drew Ketelson (HMC Farms) and was moderated by WG Center for Innovation & Technology Director Dennis Donohue, discussed importance of technologists working together with farmers to develop the harvest mechanisms. The panel also spoke about the innovative technology being developed on the farm and how growing practices are being altered to enable harvest.
“Success is not losing the ability to farm fresh vegetables in California. Right now, there’s a huge vacuum to Mexico and that’s because of labor. It’s too expensive, too complicated and there are too many regulations,” said Ruiz. “I just want to keep growing broccoli here, and to do that I had to completely reconfigure how I farmed the broccoli. We changed the genetics [of the broccoli] to fit us and the machine, and then we created our automatic harvesting machine.”
Speakers from across the globe also joined the conference both in person and via Zoom to share the initiatives their respective organizations are implementing to advance harvest automation, and also spoke on their shared partnership with WG to advance the GHAI. Among them was the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission who announced a $200,000 commitment to help WG’s effort to accelerate harvest automation across the fresh produce industry.
The full spectrum of GHAI supporters/stakeholders include: Agri-Tech E, Agritech New Zealand, Augean Robotics, Bosch, Bayer, California Strawberry Commission, Church Brothers, Driscoll’s, Farmwise, Finistere, FFR Robotics, FME Netherlands, GreenVenus, Grimmway Farms, John Deere, Microsoft, Oxbo International Corporation, RDO, Robotics Plus, Trimble, Turlock Fruit, UC Riverside, Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission and Yamaha.
More than 100 people attended the GHAI launch either in-person or via livestream, with more than 700 post-event livestream replays. To view a recording of the livestream, visit wga.com.