2022 SPECIALTY CROP AUTOMATION REPORT
As use of weeding/thinning and harvest-assist automation technologies grow, workers are freed up to carry out more complicated, hard-to-automate tasks. This increases the utility of labor and the satisfaction of workers, as they are doing fewer repetitive, labor-intensive tasks. However, field workers and crew managers require training to ensure acceptance and uptake of new technologies and agtech equipment. Some farmers explained in interviews that the roll-out of novel agtech equipment is sometimes hampered by farm crews that are not open to new working methods. A key enabler of success will therefore be to ensure sufficient training and education for farm crews so they understand the benefits of new technologies. While weeding/thinning solutions and harvest-assist automation technologies increasingly offer growers cost savings per acre, they also offer indirect benefits through increased harvest quality and food security. For example, growers across most crops experience labor shortages that hamper their ability to harvest all their product.
Indeed, two-thirds of apple growers experienced labor shortages that reduced their harvest, and 18 percent of respondents reported that more than 30 percent of their acres went unharvested due to labor shortages. Such losses have a large negative effect on growers’ top lines. But removing just one labor-intensive task, such as weeding, through automation could enable growers to allocate scarce labor to difficult-to-automate tasks, such as harvesting, thereby increasing the number of crops that can be picked. This means that existing technologies can already alleviate some of the challenges presented by poor labor availability while more extensive harvesting technologies gain scale. As well as quantity, automation technologies offer increased harvest quality. For example, according to the survey, apple growers experienced decreased shrinkage of around 5-10 percent on average due to automation. As with cost savings per acre and reducing labor shortages, these benefits are likely to increase as the technologies mature and improve.
5.4 ENABLERS TO ACCELERATE HARVEST AUTOMATION ON FARMS
There are five key ways in which Western Growers and similar industry organizations can catalyze the impact of automation on specialty crops: next generation ag workforce development, genetic innovation, new
farming operations, increased industry collaboration and policy change and transparency. Over the past year, Western Growers has expanded its efforts in each, as shown in Figure 39.
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