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A couple of years ago Gary Wishnatzki was standing in the middle of one of his Plant City, FL strawberry fields watching as an awkward, unlikely creature creeped and crawled along the rows. That, he told a visiting reporter, pointing to the unwieldy machine clambering amongst the plants, is the future of agriculture.

He was right. The robots are coming. Some of them are already here.

Gary Wishnatzki

Wishnatzki, owner of Wish Farms, is one of the biggest players in the berry business, but he’s also an innovator and visionary who holds several patents. One of those is for the next generation version of the robot strawberry harvester he was watching in beta tests a couple of years back. The new machine bares scant resemblance to that early model.

It’s a behemoth that can pick a single strawberry plant in 8 seconds, then move on to the next plant in 1.5 seconds. It can harvest eight acres in a single day. It does the work of 30 human laborers and never needs a break.

It is a product of technology company Harvest CROO Robotics, launched in 2013 by Wishnatzki and Chief Technical Officer Bob Pitzer. The goal was to revolutionize the strawberry industry.

Bob Pitzer

Mission accomplished. This fall, the robot will be hard at work in the Florida strawberry fields, picking until… well, until the job’s done.

From biblical times until just very recently on a historical scale, the world’s nations casually enslaved other nations and peoples to do the jobs that no one else would – like plant and harvest crops. It’s backbreaking labor. It’s honest work, but face it: Nobody raises their kids to be strawberry pickers.

Those are the kinds of jobs that have always fallen to economically disadvantaged people looking for a leg up, usually to make a better life for their children. Nobody wants to work in the fields. It’s a very old story. The first recorded mention of it comes in Chapter 3 of the book of Genesis, when Adam is cast out of the garden to toil in the fields.

But as disadvantaged people do the crappy jobs and make a better life for their kids, their lots and those of their countrymen improve. Immigrant labor has made up the bulk of the American agricultural labor force for years now. But once a nation’s employment and economy are on the rise — no matter what country they’re working in — it starts looking for easier ways to make a living.

It’s like a game of musical chairs though: As employment raises the standard of living in one area, that area becomes less likely to produce labor for another. Eventually the music stops, the chairs run out and somebody’s left standing.

Enter the robots.

As a society we have gotten used to the presence of labor saving machinery. Washing machines, dishwashers, stoves that light themselves and don’t need cords of chopped wood to heat food, straight on through to the automation of the automobile industry. It’s all happened so slowly and steadily that sometimes we hardly notice. Until the Roomba bumps up against our feet as we’re sitting on the couch watching re-runs instead of vacuuming.

Unimate was the first industrial robot, patented in 1954 and introduced in 1961.

The first industrial robot was a mechanical arm called Unimate which debuted on a General Motors assembly line at the Inland Fisher Guide Plant in Ewing Township, NJ, in 1961. The inventor, George Devol, filed the patent in 1954 and went on to launch the world’s first robot manufacturing company, Unimation.

But what’s coming now is a whole ‘nother beast. This is the kind of Jetsons stuff we’ve been waiting on. It’s no flying car. It’s not Marty McFly’s hoverboard. But it is most assuredly a machine that can pick strawberries faster and longer than any human being and only needs a power source and maintenance to keep running ad infinitum.

And that’s a good thing. Because, as Wishnatzki says, automated harvesting “is too important to fail. If we don’t get this right the industry is in big trouble. This labor situation is bad and going to get worse. There’s no chance we will get any relief, and if we do it will be be short-lived. The situation is, most of our labor is coming from Mexico and in the next 10 years Mexican farms are going to be in the same situation and we’re going to run out of people to do this work. It’s going to get extremely costly and the labor availability is not going to be there.”

Growing Mexican farms will be soaking up the local labor force. And that force will continue to shrink. Not only will there be fewer willing farmworkers as fortunes rise, there will simply be fewer Mexicans in coming years. Here’s why:

“Even if they were to open up the borders for agricultural purposes that would also be a short-term solution,” Wishnatzki says. “It’s all about demographics and most people don’t get it. It’s not that we’ve got border security, people aren’t coming because the fertility rate in Mexico in the 1960s was 6.7. Twenty years ago it dropped to 2.9 – that’s the trend we’ve been seeing in availability. Today its 2.1, so 20 years ago from now it’s going to be that much worse. If we don’t solve this the labor’s not going to be there. The new generation is going to have other opportunities and they’re not going to be working in the fields. Produce is going to get very expensive and the industry is going to get much smaller.”

Enter the robots.

Gary Wishnatzki, Bob Pitzer and Scott Jantz give some perspective to their mechanical harvester

California startup Abundant Robotics recently got a $10 million investment boost – led by Google – for its still evolving robotic apple picker. Beta versions will be picking in Washington state this fall.

In Salinas Valley, Taylor Farms has a robot harvester that cuts Romaine lettuce with high-pressure streams of water that act as knives. The machine sucks up the heads of lettuce in a cloud of vapor and sends them to a conveyor belt where workers collect them.

Clearly that’s just the tip of the iceberg (or Romaine, in Taylor’s case).

“This is the last frontier, this selective type of harvesting that we’re doing now – corn and wheat and cotton, all those things have already been automated,” Wishnatzki says. “We obviously have this great need, everybody recognizes this now, they didn’t five years ago, they saw some tightness but they didn’t really see it getting worse. I was looking at demographics and saw it was going to get worse.”

Closing in on a strawberry

It’s not just negative pressure – the shrinking labor pool — that’s driven robotic development.

“Technology has advanced to the point where these things are possible,” Wishnatzki said. “I was listening to Abundant Robotics [CEO] Dan Steere, he said, ‘This is the time in history where things we are doing now weren’t possible five years ago.’ And some things were possible before but not affordable. Now technology has advanced to a point where this is all coming together.”

While no one’s actively looking to replace a labor force, Wishnatzki expects to get an earful from activists when his robot goes to work later this fall. “I fully expect to hear from all kind of labor advocates. But this is the history of immigrants in this country, they come here and work hard to make a better life for themselves and their family and they do.”

A gentle touch grabs the berry

And there will be jobs – better jobs – available because of technological advances in agriculture.

“Our techs are probably going to be people who have been working in the fields because who’s better than the people who are already familiar with the crops and already are familiar with the plants and know what to look for? For the people who want to stay in agriculture, there’s going to be quite a few opportunities. We’re not going to put people out of jobs — people are leaving, there are opportunities elsewhere.”

There are millions and millions of dollars waiting to be invested in ag tech and automated harvesting. As some of these early ventures come to fruition, the development curve will quicken.

And it’s crucial that new technology doesn’t radically interrupt the way farmers work now. The Harvest CROO robot will start picking in Florida this fall. Wishnatzki hopes that by the second half of the season, field-packing technology that’s in development will be onboard as well.

Mission accomplished

Wishnatzki describes a scenario that sounds otherworldly:

“Everything will be picked while the machine is moving at a steady pace through the field, but a secondary system holds the position of the robots over the plants as a swarm of robots goes through the field – they all stop over individual plants then move forward when they’re done, but the overall platform will be constantly moving at a steady pace while the pickers are hovering for three or four seconds,” he says.

“We’re down to sub-half-inch accuracy with our GPS system. We’re able to pick berries at a commercial speed very rapidly and that’s one of the things that really differentiates us, the fact that we are going to be able to not only pick at commercial speed but have a vehicle big enough to bring the harvested berries out of the field. We’re not requiring growers to radically change how they grow and invest in expensive growing systems – it’s a very smooth and easy transition from traditional labor.”

Enter the robots.

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