Farm robot hype too readily believed

07/16/2013 07:37:00 AM
Tom Karst

Tom KarstAfter reading two or three recent feature stories, the American public may have the idea that robots will soon solve the labor crisis on U.S. farms.

This morning the Drudge Report  (still a news staple after all these years) linked to a story about the use of farm robots in lettuce fields titled “Robots to revolutionize farming, ease labor woes”

If it were only that simple….

The story ably examines the development of the Lettuce Bot, described as a machine that can “thin” a field of lettuce in the same time it takes about 20 workers to do the job by hand.

The promise of robots on the farm has been raised in recent years as supply of farm workers has tightened and the path to comprehensive immigration reform remains blocked.

While thinning lettuce might be accomplished, experts readily admit that the act of harvesting fruit like apples, peaches and strawberries with the use of robotics still remains problematic. Experts quoted in the Associated Press article say that robots for fresh fruit harvesting are at least ten years away.

Still companies like Agrobot are pushing the envelope and taking risks. If you give a robot the backbreaking work of strawberry picking, who really is going to complain?

The time line for the use of effective robots in the field may in fact be a moving target, a kind of goal that is always just out of grasp – like the Kansas City Royals baseball team actually making the playoffs.

In December 2007, The Packer covered the Washington State Horticultural Association's annual meeting with a full day focused on labor supply. Even six years ago, the topic of robots was floated as a possible solution to labor shortages. Here is the coverage from that time:

Robotics and mechanical harvesters have been touted as a way to stretch short labor supplies, but some aren't convinced.

"Mechanization is kind of a Holy Grail," Doug Pauly, operations manager of Northern Fruit Co. Inc., said during a panel discussion on labor as an industry challenge. "I think picking apples is harder than the robotics guys envision."

"I don't see mechanized harvest as practical unless you're willing to sacrifice a large percentage of the crop to the processor," said John Borton, owner of Borton & Sons Inc., Yakima.


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