Don Curlee: Even more machines taking over harvesting
An ungainly, long-armed strawberry-picking machine might be as pretty a picture of farming's future as you can find. And it has several ugly cousins.
More machines in more crops and more locations to accomplish the harvesting chores that traditionally have been done by hand form the picture of farming's future. In California, the variety and diversity of the equipment is sure to be eye-catching, and maybe a bit overwhelming.
The strawberry harvester on display and on trial in Watsonville actually plucks ripe berries from the plants as it proceeds down the mounded rows. Among its complex functions is the ability to traverse the rolling terrain typical of strawberry fields in the Salinas-Watsonville strawberry empire.
With its 10 mechanical arms reaching into every plant as it traverses specially-prepared berry rows, the Agrobot harvester is a virtual package of electronically controlled movements. It was designed and built by Watsonville manufacturer Juan Bravo, who is cooperating with researchers to increase its compatibility with growth patterns and strawberry varieties dominant in the industry.
California's citrus industry continues its development of a harvesting combination including a unit that actually photographs fruit on the trees. It transmits the images electronically to a separate harvesting unit that plucks each orange and conveys it to a collection bin.
University of California researchers are deeply involved in the development of a unit that removes weeds that grow between the plants of processing tomatoes. While the mechanical tomato-harvester became a fixture 40 years ago, weed growth is a serious handicap to its efficiency that the industry is determined to overcome.
Several futuristic techniques likely to be applied by orchard and vineyard growers were discussed in a recent article by Nella Letizia at Washington State University. They include sensors to measure the amount of photosynthetic energy being absorbed by tree and vine canopies at any time of day. Others will sense moisture levels in leaves and soil, triggering a variable-rate irrigation system that will supply the exact amount of water and fertilizer to the trees and vines.
The research in Washington is being shared and coordinated with studies at the University of California, Davis. Other institutions and organizations committed to futuristic harvesting research include the University of Arizona, New Mexico State University, Oregon State University, the US Department of Agriculture, California's Almond Board and Walnut Board and several wineries and farming corporations.
The overseer of the project at WSU, which coordinates with the University of California and other universities in the Western US, said one of its goals is the creation of an information-based, decision-making infrastructure that will drive (pertinent industries) into this new precision agriculture revolution, an era he calls precision crop management.
Elsewhere, harvesting platforms that hold pickers aloft so they can harvest tree fruit without using ladders are in various stages of experimentation and development. Development continues on a mechanical harvester for lettuce. Last May, a machine was demonstrated in Salinas that applies shrink wrapping to lettuce, broccoli and other green and fresh vegetables in the field.
Workers always will be required at harvest time for almost every crop, but not in the numbers they have been needed in the past. Failure by Congress to deal forthrightly with immigration issues is bringing about a noticeable reduction in the number of field workers available in all the Western states.
Huge strides toward replacing them with machines have been made already. The harvester for processed tomatoes enjoyed universal usage long before the last century ended, as did mechanical harvesters for prunes, almonds, walnuts and, later, pistachios. Half — some say more — of the raisins in Central California were harvested by machine this year.
Ready or not, the future with its automatons, robots and electronic wonders is nearing. Instead of housing for human workers, the building boom on the farm is likely to be barns and storage sheds to protect the space-age wonders in the off-season.
CONTACT Don Curlee at firstname.lastname@example.org