President’s Note: Automation in Agriculture

president's note automation agriculture

I recently discussed the issue of robotics and automation in agriculture with one of our trustees. They sent me an article entitled Automating the Risk Out of Farming (Gonzalez, Carlos M., Mechanical Engineering 8(142):34-37).

The article was interesting, and caused me to sit back and think of the ramifications for agriculture, especially the local food systems we promote here at the Kerr Center. This is not an “it’s all good” or “it’s all bad” situation. As with any new technology it depends on how it is used and whether it is affordable.

The main drivers for automation and robotics in agriculture are similar to most industries: to reduce risk and help with labor shortages. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted many of these issues. Farmers were unable to hire labor to harvest field crops. The labor shortage has pushed technological fixes to the forefront.

Some of the technologies being adopted and developed include automatic milking machines, where the cow simply walks in when she’s ready to be milked. The milker attaches itself to the cow without any human input other than monitoring the system. I know someone who has this system, and they say the cows show lower stress levels.

There is a fully automated system for hydroponic greens in development. Rather than develop the robotics to fit current hydroponic systems, the developers are looking at how to modify the hydroponic growing system to fit current robotics.

Another robotic system is for harvesting fruits and vegetables by developing a “picking hand” which mimics the human hand. No, it doesn’t look like a human hand in the article, but replicates how we grasp and pull fruits and vegetables off plants.

The problem and the benefit of these new technologies can be the same: less labor. It’s good if you have trouble hiring labor and can use technology as a substitute but it can be bad with fewer people working in agriculture and understanding where their food comes from.

One of the problems I have seen with local food system producers is burnout. Many start with the dream of making a living growing and selling food. The problem is the time commitment, requiring long hours in the field or greenhouse to make it an economically viable system.

Food tends to be a low profit margin crop. Large amounts of production are needed to generate the profit needed to survive as a business. If robotic labor-saving technology were affordable and scaled for smaller growers, easing up the labor needed in the field, I think growers would adopt it.

Another problem deals with cost and scale. Most of these technologies require a high up-front investment, and many are not being scaled down in size and cost for middle- to small-scale producers. This increases farm size and potentially hurts the farm to table grower.

This also leads to the issue of plant breeding. Since these systems are automated, sometimes it is easier to develop plants to fit the system rather than the other way around. We already do this with fruits and vegetables, by selecting for a narrow harvest window to reduce the cost of harvesting and spoilage losses. This has the potential to further narrow the genetic base we rely on for our food.

It is fascinating to read about and see the technology change, but what is the end result? At the Kerr Center, we have been trying to automate the roll-up sides on a cold frame so it is controlled by a thermostat, using solar panels to recharge the batteries. While this is small-scale compared to the technologies in the article, it is an example of using technology to reduce labor and take some of the risk out of cold frame production.

Some automated roll-up side cold frame systems exist, but reliability seems to be an issue. Part of me is excited about the advancements, but I only see it benefiting local growers if the technology is scaled for small farms and it is affordable. It tends to be difficult for companies to justify scaling down these new technologies due to the high development costs.

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