How robots may affect farming's future

New technologies could make American agriculture more efficient, cutting the number of workers needed and having an impact on the immigration debate.

By Bruce Kennedy Jul 16, 2013 7:08AM

Mechanization has helped make America's agricultural success story possible. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says our farm output was 170% above 1948 levels in 2009 and has been growing at an average annual rate of 1.63%.

That increased productivity is a historic marvel -- brought around in part by science, technology and generations of dedicated and passionate agricultural workers.

Nearly all of our food is, in some way, machine-harvested. The exception to that rule has been market-ready fresh produce -- especially delicate and easily bruised fruits and vegetables harvested manually by field laborers.

But that may be changing, as robotics experts develop new machinery that's not only ground-breaking, both figuratively and literally, but could also change the future of the nation's migrant farm worker labor force.

The Associated Press recently reported on a "lettuce bot" being tested in California's Salinas Valley. It uses video cameras and visual-recognition software and can do the work of 20 manual laborers as it quickly thins out lettuce seedlings. This video shows the lettuce bot at work.Credit: © John Moore/Getty Images
Caption: A migrant farm worker from Mexico harvests organic zucchini while working at the Grant Family Farms on September 3, 2010 in Wellington, Colorado. The farm, the largest organic vegetable farm outside of California, hires some 250 immigrant workers during the peak harvest season. Owner Andy Grant lamented that the issue of illegal immigration has become politicized nationally. 'They feed America,' he said. 'They should not be victimized.' Grant said his workers start at $7.25, which is the minimum wage in Colorado

The company behind Lettuce Bot, Blue River Technology of Mountain View, Calif., has raised more than $3 million in venture capital, and it plans to develop weeding and harvesting machines. The Spanish company Agrobot, meanwhile, is testing a strawberry harvester in Southern California, and Vision Robotics of San Diego is working on a device that prunes wine grapes.

But machines have yet to match humans when it comes to harvesting fruit and identifying which fruit is ready for market.

"The hand-eye coordination workers have is really amazing, and they can pick incredibly fast," Daniel Schmoldt with the USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture told the wire service. "To replicate that in a machine, at the speed humans do and in an economical manner, we're still pretty far away."

The need for further automation of fresh produce is being driven by a variety of factors -- including growing global demand for food and agricultural competition from other countries. There are also concerns about how changes in immigration laws could affect the estimated 3 million migrant and seasonal farmworkers in the U.S. -- about 72% of whom are foreign-born, according to the National Center for Farmworker Health.

Farmworker advocates say mechanization would not only mean fewer jobs, but it could also take away an important human element when it comes to guaranteeing food safety.

"The fundamental question for consumers is who and, now, what do you want picking your food: a machine or a human," Erik Nicholson, national vice president of the United Farm Workers of America, told The AP.

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Jul 17, 2013 6:45PM
machine as I would not have to worry if it washed its hands after using the bathroom or a cold etc.
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