Rise of the ro­bots

As the labour short­age grows, farm­ers race to re­place work­ers with ro­bots.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Science - By GE­OF­FREY MOHAN

DRISCOLL’S is so se­cre­tive about its ro­botic straw­berry picker it won’t let pho­tog­ra­phers within tele­photo range of it.

But if you do get a peek, you won’t see any­thing hu­manoid or space-aged. AgroBot is still more John Deere than C-3PO – a boxy con­trap­tion mov­ing in fits and starts, with its com­puter-driven sen­sors, graspers and cut­ters miss­ing one in three ber­ries.

Such has been the progress of ag-tech in Cal­i­for­nia, US, where de­spite the adop­tion of drones, iPhone apps and satel­lite-driven sen­sors, the hand and knife still harvest the bulk of more than 200 crops.

Now, the US$47 bil (RM201.42bil) agri­cul­ture in­dus­try is try­ing to bring tech­no­log­i­cal in­no­va­tion up to warp speed be­fore it runs out of low-wage im­mi­grant work­ers.

Cal­i­for­nia will have to re­make its fields like it did its fac­to­ries, with more ma­chines and bet­ter-ed­u­cated work­ers to labour be­side them, or risk los­ing en­tire crops, econ­o­mists say.

“Cal­i­for­nia agri­cul­ture just isn’t go­ing to look the same,” said Ed Tay­lor, a Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia at Davis ru­ral econ­o­mist. “You’re go­ing to be hard-pressed to find crops grown as labour-in­ten­sively as they are now.”

Driscoll’s, which grows ber­ries in nearly two dozen coun­tries and is the world’s top berry grower, al­ready is mov­ing its ber­ries to ta­ble-top troughs, where they are eas­ier for both hu­man and ma­chines to pick, as it has done over the last decade in Aus­tralia and Europe.

“We don’t see – no mat­ter what hap­pens – that the labour prob­lem will be solved,” said Soren Bjorn, pres­i­dent of Driscoll’s of the Amer­i­cas.

That’s be­cause im­mi­grant farm­work­ers in Cal­i­for­nia’s agri­cul­tural heart­lands are get­ting older and not be­ing re­placed.

Af­ter decades of crack­downs, the net flow across the US-Mex­ico bor­der re­versed in 2005, a trend that ac­cel­er­ated through 2014, ac­cord­ing to a Pew Re­search Cen­ter study.

And na­tive-born Amer­i­cans aren’t in­ter­ested in the job, even at wages that have soared at higher than av­er­age rates.

“We’ve been mask­ing this prob­lem all these years with a sys­tem that ba­si­cally al­lowed you to ac­cept fraud­u­lent doc­u­ments as le­gal, and that’s what has been keep­ing this work­force go­ing,” said Steve Sca­roni, whose Fresh Harvest com­pany is among the big­gest re­cruiters of farm labour. “And now we find out we don’t have much of a labour force up here, at least a le­gal one.”

Stated bluntly, there aren’t enough new im­mi­grants for the state’s nearly half-mil­lion farm labour jobs – es­pe­cially as Mex­ico cre­ates com­pet­ing man­u­fac­tur­ing jobs in its own ci­ties, Tay­lor said.

He has cal­cu­lated that the pool of po­ten­tial im­mi­grants from ru­ral Mex­ico shrinks ev­ery year by about 150,000 peo­ple.

Not sur­pris­ingly, wages for crop pro­duc­tion have climbed 13% from 2010 to 2015 – a higher rate than the state av­er­age, ac­cord­ing to a Los An­ge­les Times anal­y­sis of La­bor Depart­ment data.

Grow­ers who can af­ford it have be­gun of­fer­ing sav­ings and health plans more com­monly found in white col­lar jobs. And they’re in­creas­ingly turn­ing to for­eign guest work­ers, re­cruit­ing 11,000 last year, which is a five-fold jump in just five years, The Times found.

None of that will solve the prob­lem, econ­o­mists say. Chang­ing what we grow and how we grow it is all that’s left.

Re­sponse has been un­even, at best. Vast ar­eas of the Cen­tral Val­ley have switched from labour in­ten­sive crops such as grapes or veg­eta­bles to al­monds, which are me­chan­i­cally shaken from the tree.

The high-value wine grape in­dus­try has re-en­gi­neered the bulk of its vine­yards to al­low ma­chines to span the vines like a mono­rail and strip them of grape clus­ters or leaves. Fresno’s raisin in­dus­try, how­ever, has a tougher prob­lem to solve on a tighter profit mar­gin. To fully mech­a­nise, it may have to change not just its vine­yard de­sign, but the grape va­ri­ety it­self, much like the tomato in­dus­try de­vel­oped a tough skinned Roma to with­stand me­chan­i­cal har­vesters.

When labour short­ages and price shocks hit in the early 2000s, grow­ers al­tered vine­yards so that ma­chines could shake par­tially with­ered Thomp­son seed­less grapes onto pa­per trays, a method that can slash more than 80% of labour costs, ac­cord­ing to U.C. Davis re­searchers.

Elim­i­nat­ing trays en­tirely, how­ever, re­quires a grape that can dry slowly on the vine be­fore Septem­ber rains hit. Thomp­sons ma­ture too late. The Sun­preme, de­vel­oped by a re­tired USDA plant sci­en­tist in Cal­i­for­nia’s Cen­tral Val­ley, may soon be widely avail­able, said Matthew Fidelibus, a UC co­op­er­a­tive ex­ten­sion ad­vi­sor.

It may be too late to mech­a­nise as­para­gus. The crop, among the most labour-in­ten­sive in the state, has grad­u­ally shifted to Mex­ico since trade bar­ri­ers made it cheaper to grow there, cast­ing a nos­tal­gic pall over Stock­ton’s as­para­gus fes­ti­val.

Last year, farm­ers in the Sacra­mento-San Joaquin River Delta area har­vested only 8,000 acres of the sig­na­ture spear, which is de­picted on wa­ter tanks and town em­blems through­out the re­gion. In 2000, they har­vested 37,000 acres, ac­cord­ing to the US Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture.

“We’re headed to­ward zero pretty soon,” said Cherie Watte An­gulo, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Cal­i­for­nia As­para­gus Com­mis­sion.

Grown on peren­nial beds that last a decade or so, as­para­gus must be se­lec­tively har­vested ev­ery day dur­ing its 90-day sea­son. Ma­chines have ut­terly failed to du­pli­cate hu­man judg­ment and dex­ter­ity.

This sea­son, a grower’s co­op­er­a­tive in the Stock­ton area tested a pro­to­type har­vester from Wash­ing­ton state that uses sen­sors to se­lect only the ma­ture stalks.

“I’ll keep it sim­ple: the ma­chine didn’t work,” said Bob Fer­gu­son, who hosted the ma­chine on his 162 acres of as­para­gus beds. “He took it back up to Wash­ing­ton.”

Even Driscoll’s AgroBot, among the more ad­vanced pro­to­types in Cal­i­for­nia fields, was pick­ing only a bit more than half the ripe ber­ries in its tri­als this spring in Ca­mar­illo.

“We think we are very close, but ev­ery day we try to make the next step. We see new things we need to solve,” said Juan Bravo, the Span­ish in­ven­tor who is count­ing on Driscoll’s con­tin­ued back­ing for his 10-year en­deavor.

So far, the Wat­sonville, Cal­i­for­nia, com­pany is into AgroBot for the long-haul, said Michael Chris­tensen, Driscoll’s re­search and devel­op­ment di­rec­tor, who watched Bravo tinker with the ma­chine’s three dozen arms be­fore set­ting it to another crawl.

Ver­ti­cal rods slid left and right, guid­ing four-fin­gered graspers to pre­cise co­or­di­nates set by a cam­era and com­puter.

Soon, a stream of ripe ber­ries emerged on a con­veyor, mixed oc­ca­sion­ally with green­tipped fruit.

“In some ways, you can look at it as ev­ery pound picked is part of the so­lu­tion,” Chris­tensen said.

The rest of the fruit in­dus­try has its eye on AgroBot’s tri­als, even as it looks to other star­tups such as Abun­dant Ro­bot­ics, which hopes to du­pli­cate the dex­ter­ity, judg­ment and per­cep­tion of hu­man ap­ple pick­ers.

Soft Ro­bot­ics boasts that its graspers can pick up a cup­cake with­out dam­ag­ing the ic­ing.

Frank Ma­conachy is scep­ti­cal of so­lu­tions im­ported from tech cen­tres. His com­pany, Ram­say High­lander, started as a greasy ma­chine shop in the Sali­nas Val­ley and slowly mi­grated to­ward Sil­i­con Val­ley in­stead.

The com­pany, with US$15mil (RM64.28mil) in an­nual sales, builds a fleet of com­put­erised and sen­sor-driven ma­chines for the let­tuce and pro­duce in­dus­try – and he is work­ing with AgroBot’s US com­peti­tor for straw­berry pick­ing, Harvest Croo, based in Plant City, Florida.

An early gen­er­a­tion of ro­botic ma­chine uses a band saw to mow whole rows of baby let­tuce and other greens. But when pro­duce gi­ant Tay­lor Farms tried it on ro­maine heads, a slight height vari­a­tion in the beds put the saw right across the heart of the heads, leav­ing noth­ing but shred­ded leaves, Ma­conachy said.

Ma­conachy de­vel­oped a cut­ter us­ing high­speed wa­ter jets. It now cuts all the ro­maine heads cleanly, and can be adapted for cab­bage and cel­ery.

“That ma­chine took the work of 30 peo­ple and brought it down to about 12 peo­ple,” Ma­conachy said. – Los An­ge­les Times/Tri­bune NewsSer­vice

An agri­cul­tural worker thins rows of let­tuce af­ter a com­puter-guided ma­chine had done the bulk of the work, leav­ing her small crew to hoe only what it missed. — TNS

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