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Could Robots Replace Farmworkers In Valley Fields? Silicon Valley Hopes So

Blue River Technology
The attachment on this tractor is called a lettuce thinner.

Let’s face it farmers are usually slow to change their practices for a couple reasons. Change usually comes with a high price tag – a new tractor can cost a half million dollars. And farmers want to minimize risk by only investing in things that have been successfully tested and in the end don’t reduce profits. But robots are slowly changing that perspective.

"It's going to be a long period of time before robots are even more prevalent than human laborers." - Jason Vazzano

Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio
Valley Public Radio
Jason Vazzano with Electric Motor Shop and Supply works with parts that go onto robots.

“At the end of the day robots can go into really harsh environments where people really don’t want to work and in turn it will create new jobs like the people that are maintaining the robots, the people that are actually programming the robots,” says Jason Vazzano with Electric Motor Shop and Supply in Fresno. “It will bring a whole different facet of labor pool."

He outfits basic robots with parts for farmers across the region. He’s opening a little box at their downtown Fresno office and warehouse. Inside is a small plastic square sensor that can be attached to a machine or robot. The sensor detects if something is in front of it, like a boxes on a conveyor belt.

“So here we have like photo eyes, photo sensors and stuff like that,” says Vazzano. “It tells presence, no presence. This one in particular is infrared. It’s just looking for bounce back of light from the product.”

Vazzano says the growers he works with usually approach him with a specific need ranging from a machine that sorts fruit to robots that can tell whether an individual piece of fruit is ripe using infrared technology. Ryan Jacobsen with the Fresno County Farm Bureau says Silicon Valley’s increased interest in farm robotics in places like the Central Valley couldn’t have come at a more perfect time. He says as harvest ramps up there’s going to be a need for more laborers to pick crops.

“There’s just not this supply of individuals that there used to be,” says Jacobsen. “We talk about the ag economy. It’s robust, it’s obviously grown over the years in California. There’s just less hands to do these jobs particularly during that peak season.”

"We've given the machine the ability to learn. It uses what we call artificial intelligence to decide what to do when it can't do it perfectly, which is very much like a human brain."- Mac Keely

Jacobsen says he’d like to see robots invented that can pick stone fruit, like peaches, right off the tree. A company called Abundant Robotics in the Bay area is working on just that, but for apples. The robot can tell if an apple is ripe or not and if it is then its suction arm picks it.  Jacobsen says finding a way for robots to pick tree fruit as well as people do is important because the seasonal laborer workforce can vary in size. Around 40 percent of the nation’s agricultural workforce are employed by fruit and nut farms.

“I can’t underestimate when we talk about this technology, it’s very cool, very futuristic, very opportunistic about what we may be able to do within the ag industry, the fact of the matter is it's also very expensive,” says Jacobsen.

Credit Good Fruit Grower
The apple picker robot by Abundant Robotics sucks up the apples after it makes sure its ripe.

Jacobsen says the high cost is what’s preventing robots from being used across the valley. A robot can cost anywhere from thousands of dollars to $100,000 to half a million dollars.

Meanwhile, the lettuce industry is already using robots to their advantage. Silicon Valley start-up Blue River Technology has come up with a See and Spray machine that can do the work of 20 workers. At one time the cost for a robot like this was several hundred thousand dollars, but it’s decreased in cost as new models came out. That sound is the machine being pulled over rows of lettuce in the Salinas Valley. Mac Keely with the company says they teach the robotic tractor attachment by showing it hundreds of photos and videos.

“We’ve given the machine the ability to learn,” says Keely. “It uses vision technology to see what's in the field and it uses what we call artificial intelligence to decide what to do when it can't do it perfectly, which is very much like a human brain.”

"Agriculture as a whole for robotics from my perspective and what I've seen so far it's coming real soon." - Jason Vazzano

To guarantee a crop farmers overplant lettuce. The machine decides on its own what seedlings to kill with a fertilizer spray in order to leave enough room for the lettuce to grow. Keely says this tech was born after the lettuce industry approached his company to address a growing problem.

“That problem was a shortage of labor for doing things like the thinning of a lettuce crop,” Keely says. “[Our leaders] said I think we can solve this problem and went about creating some lettuce thinners.”

There are also other lettuce thinners on the market being tested as well as melon pickers, orange pickers and grapevine pruners. But even though there are labor issues in the region it’s not like farmers are racing to replace workers with robots.

“Agriculture as a whole for robotics from my perspective and what I’ve seen so far it’s coming real soon,” says Jason Vazzano with Electric Motor Shop and Supply. “But it’s going to be a long period of time before robots are even more prevalent than human laborers.”

Vazzano says the large-scale rollout of robots on farms is years out. And even though the idea of robots replacing workers is slowly becoming a reality the widespread acceptance of robots operating on farms is going to take some convincing.

Ezra David Romero is an award-winning radio reporter and producer. His stories have run on Morning Edition, Morning Edition Saturday, Morning Edition Sunday, All Things Considered, Here & Now, The Salt, Latino USA, KQED, KALW, Harvest Public Radio, etc.
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