Could robotics help to relieve the farm labor shortage?
The testing of agricultural robots is underway in California and Florida to see whether they might be a workable and cost-effective way to relieve the labor shortage plaguing the farm sector, according to CNBC.
Some of these machines can handle pruning, seeding and weeding, while others are designed to pick strawberries and harvest apples and other crops. There are even fleets of little field robots being tested that could be used for labor-intensive duties typically performed by dozens of farm workers, CNBC reported.
Some of this futuristic machinery is being developed by technology companies, with large agribusinesses occasionally joining in both by investing in the robots and helping out with testing them.
The labor shortage is being blamed on federal immigration policies since 57% of the U.S. agricultural workforce is undocumented — with arrests and deportations trending up. Consumers could feel the pinch as well when labor shortages impact supply and retail prices increase.
Robots may be able to alleviate some of the pressure if they prove to be affordable and practical, which is why field trials are going on now.
These machines are able to work at all hours in difficult conditions, which is not always possible for regular farm machinery operated by humans. Some are similar to self-driving cars and use electronic sensors to navigate through farm fields.
Two robotics companies — Harvest Croo and Agrobot — are testing strawberry harvesters in California and Florida. This is a delicate business since strawberries are fragile and can easily be damaged during handling. However, Harvest Croo co-founder Gary Wishnatzki told CNBC that farm workers can also be rough on fruit when they're busy picking and packing.
Widespread robotics use in the agricultural sector could hinge on cost, especially for smaller and mid-sized farms. Some mechanical harvesting machines used on wine grapes in Washington state can carry a $400,000 price tag, CNBC noted, while a mechanical lettuce harvester with a water jet cutter will cost a farm operation approximately $750,000.
The cost of acquiring pricey equipment is bound to be passed on to consumers and retailers. With the current high demand for fresh and natural foods, small increases might be acceptable.
A recent study by the United Fresh Produce Association found that visits to the supermarket for fresh foods were up last year compared with 2016. Produce, which accounts for a third of all fresh sales, is a key driver of in-store visits and grocery store sales.
It's going to take a while before robotics get anywhere close to the point of common use in agriculture. Before that day comes, the machines will have to make it through the testing phase and over the cost hurdle. Still, getting past those obstacles might prove easier than getting the three branches of the federal government to reach common ground on immigration policy.