As labor issues continue to pose a challenge for producers of California summer fruit, many growers are hopeful that a solution may lie in technology.
The state’s minimum wage is inching upward and will hit $15 per hour by 2022, while a new law now requires overtime pay after eight hours a day.
Workers can be difficult to find at any price during certain times of the year.
Growers say mechanical harvesting may ease the labor burden, but that’s a more practical solution for producers of some crops than for others.
The strawberry industry, for example, may be on the verge of venturing into the world of mechanical harvesting.
A couple of companies, including Harvest CROO Robotics of Plant City, Fla., are working on machines that can pick strawberries.
Gary Wishnatzki, owner of Wish Farms in Plant City, is a founder of Harvest CROO and says his machine will be able to harvest 8 acres a day and replace more than 30 workers.
More than 20% of the U.S. strawberry industry has invested in the harvester, including some major California berry operations, he said.
This spring, he was testing prototypes on a rail system in Florida.
“We are about to roll out the vehicle,” he said, which is a modified Harvest Pro harvesting aid. Picking devices will be mounted on the bottom.
The harvester should be ready for use in California in a couple of years.
Melons also may be a candidate for mechanical harvesting — someday.
Frank Maconachy, president and CEO of Ramsay Highlander, Gonzalez, Calif., met with members of the California Melon Research Board and is interested in applying his talents to a machine that will harvest melons.
Maconachy has already developed a harvester for spinach and lettuce, but melons may be more challenging because of their weight and because they don’t all ripen at the same time, said J.D. Allen, manager of the Dinuba-based board.
The industry likely will have to develop an extended-shelf-life melon before turning to a mechanical harvester, he said.
The melon industry has considered the possibility of mechanical harvesting for a long time, Maconachy said, but with rising labor concerns, the time has come to act.
“We’ve got to get moving
forward on solving this problem,” Maconachy said.
A harvester for tree fruit may be even further off.
“I don’t see how you would ever be able to mechanize the tree fruit industry,” said David Stone, owner of Valhalla Sales & Marketing Co., Kingsburg, Calif.
“It’s too delicate,” he said.
Growers are looking at cultural practices like trellising systems, and Valhalla is experimenting with a high-density tree count per acre and with shorter trees that make the fruit easier to harvest.
Whether those ideas will work has yet to be seen, Stone said.
The fact that, as with melons, not all stone fruit ripens at the same time is another obstacle growers will have to overcome if they want to implement mechanical harvesting, he said.
Oranges don’t seem to be prime candidates for mechanical harvesting either.
“They’ve done a lot of research on that,” said Bob Blakely, vice president of California Citrus Mutual, Exeter.
“Oranges are a very difficult crop to harvest mechanically because it’s so hard to get them off the tree,” he said.
“We clip every single orange by hand,” Blakely said. “They hold on too tightly to shake them off.”
Some growers use picking platforms that move through the groves and eliminate the need for workers to go up and down ladders, but that practice has not been widely adopted, he said.
“It’s going to be a while before we have anything approaching mechanical harvesting,” Blakely said.
Mechanical harvesting also may be a long way off for table grapes.
“I think people will be flying to the moon before we can mechanize table grapes,” said Bob Bianco, co-owner of Anthony Vineyards, Bakersfield, Calif.
Again, all grapes on a vine don’t ripen at the same time, and grapes are a very delicate fruit that bruise easily and could shatter if subjected to mechanical harvesting, he said.
“I don’t think it will happen in my lifetime,” he said.