Labor Loss In The Southwest Leads To Increase In Farm Technology

Robots still haven't caught up to the precise hand/eye coordination of human hands. Here, a crew strips heads of iceberg lettuce, and gets them ready to be packed and shipped for Dole.
Kate Sheehy
By Kate Sheehy
March 05, 2015
Kate Sheehy
The lettuce thinner at JV Farms can handle six beds of lettuce at a time, and can replace a 60-man crew for a day.

YUMA, Ariz. — Much of the nation’s fresh fruits and vegetables are grown in the Southwest. A successful harvest now relies on the convergence of three different arenas: farming, technology and venture capitalism. 

Matt McGuire is the general manager for JV Farms in Yuma, Ariz., which covers about 15,000 crop acres. There’s cauliflower, broccoli, various greens and herbs. He’s watched the number of farm laborers dwindle in recent years. 

“We don’t have nearly as many young people coming into the system, or wanting to come into the system, particularly on the harvesting side,” McGuire said. 

There are a host of reasons for this labor shortage: the U.S. recession, a younger generation choosing college over low paid, grueling farm work, and on top of that an aging labor force.

Jose Ponce, 70, has worked the fields here for more than three decades. “I still feel strong,” he said in Spanish.

Ponce has no plans to quit work anytime soon. His son works out here too. But Ponce’s grandson is one of those young people thinking about college instead of farming.  

“This is logical, that a young person, as long as they don’t take a worse path, and they go to college, that’s very good. If not, they have to work,” he said.

For McGuire and many other growers, there have been times when a harvest didn’t happen because there weren’t enough workers. Increasingly they must rely on technology. McGuire showed off one of the latest machines or robots being used — a lettuce thinner.

Kate Sheehy
The lettuce thinner on McGuire's farm is made by Ag Mechtronix, based in New Mexico. Each compartment fits over one bed of lettuce. Under each hood are cameras, sprays and mini PCs that follow a pattern set by the farmer.

“We have more plants out there than what we need for the crop,” he said. 

McGuire explained farmers initially overplant as some of the seedlings won’t survive bugs, wind and hot weather. But it’s a fine balance: you don’t want too few lettuce heads left standing at harvest, but you don’t want plants squashing each other as they grow. 

“You gotta leave those plants that you want to keep at the right spacing, that’s what this machine does," he said.

It thins the beds of lettuce by spraying the plants that are too big, too small or too close to another one with sulfuric acid.  As it’s pulled behind a tractor, cameras along the bottom of the machine tell it which plants need to go.  

McGuire said this machine alone replaces a 60 person crew for a day. He said the $250,000 investment is worth it. But he said it has been a challenge getting engineers to understand the unpredictable environment of farming. 

“Whatever you develop for out here, you have to be able to take it to the field and the elements and it hold up,” McGuire said.

“It is definitely a challenge,” Bryon Majusiak said. He’s a senior mechanical engineer with Blue River Technology in California’s Silicon Valley. His company is one of several developing lettuce thinners — or lettuce bots, as they’re called — at Blue River. Machines vary between companies. 

Unlike the company that makes McGuire’s lettuce thinner, Blue River doesn’t sell its machines. It rents them out and a crew of engineers is paid by the acre to complete a thinning job for a farm.

Kate Sheehy
Ponce follows behind a spinach harvesting machine. This is one of the earlier machines used to replace workers. It has evolved over the years to scare away pests and sift rock from the leaves.

Majusiak said this helps a small startup like Blue River because they don’t have the staff to constantly be working on the robots. This way, they take on full responsibility for the product’s performance, making it less of a big commitment for the consumer.

“For us to take on that risk, it just makes things way easier to accept and to try, for a grower. They’re essentially risk-free," he said. "The worst we could do would be to do a poor job on their field.”

Majusiak said the farmer loses time, but they won’t be out $100,000. He said building a computer to survive in the fields takes a lot of trial and error.

“Early systems that we designed had air conditioners on them to try and keep the computers cool, we now do little radiators, like in your car,” Majusiak said. 

There’s also waterproofing and protecting the computers from rattling around on a tractor. He said Blue River is on its fourth edition of the robot. 

Investing in this new technology is expensive — not only for farmers, but for small startup companies like Blue River. And this is where Venture Capitalism enters the picture.

“This is the beginning of, I think, a huge wave in Ag Tech innovation,” said John Stanton of Silicon Valley Global Partners.

Stanton said in the past the technology wasn’t affordable for many growers. But that’s changing.

“Sensors, robotics, drones, all of these technologies are becoming cheaper and cheaper and more effective to use,” he said.

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Jose Ponce, 70, of Mexico has worked in the produce fields of Yuma for more than 30 years.

His group’s role is not just to come up with the money, but to foster collaboration between agriculture and this Silicon Valley innovation. They do this through a project called the Steinbeck Innovation Cluster anchored in the Salinas Valley. 

An element of this project is a tech incubator. Stanton said it fosters a group of engineers from around the world who are developing new ideas for the agriculture industry. Among them, robots that pick strawberries and drones that help growers monitor how water is being used.

In Yuma, McGuire expects to need that innovation more and more. He said the labor shortage can only worsen as the economy continues to improve and other industries take away farm workers.  

“Hopefully we’re forward thinking enough, and spending enough money on research and development, that we’re developing new items, new techniques, better ways of doing things for the product, for the consumer, for the worker.”

He said something a robot still doesn’t have is the precise hand-eye coordination of human hands, but he’s confident that a lot of smart people are working on it.