CHICAGO — Automation and robotics will be needed to help U.S. agriculture adjust to an aging farmer base and an increasingly stressed labor supply.

In a United Fresh Produce Association FreshTEC Conference workshop called “Automation: The Robots are coming!” panelists speculated about the future of labor-saving automation in the fresh produce sector.

Moderator Nathan Dorn, senior technology adviser for the United Fresh Produce Association, asked speakers about the current status of robotics and what they see for the next few years.

The average age of farmers is much older today than the average of 100 years ago, said panelist George Kellerman, chief operations officer and general partner, Yamaha Motor Ventures. Helping older farmers do the hard work on the farm is one of the visions for robotics, he said.

“Some of the robotics we look at are not just to fill the (labor) gap, but so robotics can help older farmers continue to do their job,” he said, such as machines designed to help growers carry and lift loads.

But the shortage of workers is very real and could threaten the existence of labor-intensive fresh produce operations in coming years, panelists said.

“It doesn’t matter how much they advertise, growers can’t get people to come out to the farm and pick,” said panelist Bob Pitzer,co-founder of Florida-based Harvest CROO.

The challenge for the robotics industry in migrating from highly automated industries like automotive manufacturing is adapting the technology to account for the variation in fresh produce items, said Dan Harburg, director of business development for Soft Robotics, Cambridge, Mass.

Soft Robotics makes gripping solutions for machines that can handle produce and other food gently. Adding sensors that could determine produce quality or ripeness may be the next step in adding to the utility of the gripping robots, he said.

Robotics is not just about replacing labor, said Ken Moynihan, chief technology for Compac. He said automated sorters offered a degree of data that was never before available, giving packers much more control over the quality of their packout. For example, he said Compac’s optical sorters have 28 megabits of data for every single apple that goes over the line, which is far more data than early personal computers could store.

The consistency that robotics offer in sorting is something that cannot be duplicated by humans, Harburg said. It is hard enough to teach packing line workers a particular way to sort, to say nothing of staff turnover or lapses. “Robotic systems don’t have to be retrained, and that’s an important aspect of what these systems can do.”

One disadvantage of field robotics versus factory robotics is the lack of control over environmental factors such as lighting and humidity, Kellerman said.

At the same time, technology can overcome those obstacles and not just replace human labor, but create new efficiencies not possible with human labor, he said.

Moynihan of Compac said when automation makes sense and buyers see a quality difference in packed produce, change can be quick. While Compac figured the transition to new optical sorters would take seven to nine years, the entire cherry industry changed over to new sorters in just three years, he said.

Panelists said more research is needed to create sanitary design on packing line and field robotics so the equipment can be cleaned easily and effectively.