- Agriculture technology firm Smart Ag has developed what it calls AutoCart software to automate existing ag equipment, which can help alleviate labor shortage issues farmers are facing, according to Food Manufacturing. The automatic grain cart system enables one person to do what typically requires two skilled operators.
- Though still in the pilot stage, testing of a driverless John Deere tractor and grain cart began this fall at MBS Family Farms in Iowa. AutoCart uses navigation technology adapted from the aerospace industry. It allows the tractor pulling the grain cart to chart an efficient path to wherever the combine operator sends it. The cart is programmed only to go where the combine has already been, thus preventing it from going into an area that hasn't yet been harvested.
- "It looks like the headless horseman when the tractor's out there without an operator in it," Mark Barglof, chief technology officer for Smart Ag, told the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier. "It takes a little bit to get used to, but once you do get used to it, you can see the future is really in front of you."
The combination of fewer new workers entering the workforce and a lack of skilled laborers could have a profound impact on the future of food companies and plant processes. Farmers face similar hurdles — harvesting processes for fruits and vegetables have become increasingly challenging due to agricultural labor shortage and lack of experienced machine operators on the farm.
Producers have said they struggle to find the labor they need to package meat and tend to livestock or pick strawberries, flowers, tomatoes and other crops. In some cases, produce is left to rot in the field, potentially hurting the nation's abundant food supply and risking the possibility of higher prices that consumers pay at the grocery store.
"For decades we've been limited on farms to about 1,000 acres per full-time equivalent [employee]. If we're going to break out of that and drive more efficiency, it's probably easier to automate than to train unskilled labor," Allen Lash, CEO of Family Farms Group, told the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier.
Companies will need to think outside the box to close labor gaps, and many are likely to turn to automation and new technology like the machine being tested by Smart Ag. Robots are already being used in retail warehouses to pick and sort products. Stores such as Walmart and Ahold Delhaize are deploying robots to support tasks like scanning shelves and counting stock.
It’s not much of a stretch to imagine robots and other automated technology penetrating food manufacturing facilities, processing plants and farms. According to Boston Consulting Group, today’s robots, food-related or otherwise, only automate about 10% of the tasks that machines can perform, though that number is expected to increase to about 25% in the next decade.
If this trend holds, and the automated ag equipment and technology pans out, this could solve the agricultural industry’s headaches over employment gaps, though it also could cause disruption for existing laborers and young workers looking to enter the sector.
But the owner of MBS Family Farms told the Waterloo-Cedar Falls publication that the technology is not about replacing any of its 20 workers. “I want to be clear that our excitement around this technology isn’t about replacing any one of those 20,” Mehmen said. “It’s about bringing more on... We see this as something that can help with that significantly."
Automated farming systems like this one could impact the whole food system. Despite having to cover R&D costs and expenses related to the new technology, food prices could actually go down because it costs less to get it to market. But if this does eventually happen, it could take some time before shoppers notice any meaningful impact on their wallet.
Still, don’t expect these kinds of advancements to take the farming community by storm anytime soon. Automation, technology and robots could be just a bit too progressive for many small mom-and-pop farms operating along the nation’s countryside. The price tag also turn off cash-strapped producers, many of whom have already seen their income sharply reduced due to a prolonged drop in corn, soybean and other commodity prices.