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Crop Pickers in California

Posted by on Dec. 4, 2012 at 9:48 AM
  • 48 Replies

What effect do you think a robotic crop picker than can beat a human crop picker on price will have upon California?

Will this affect politics and, if so, how?

(source)

March of the Lettuce Bot

Robotics: A machine that helps lettuce farmers is just one of several robots intended to automate aspects of agriculture and horticulture

Salad days for Lettuce Bot

LETTUCE is California’s main vegetable crop. The state grew $1.6 billion-worth of the leafy plant in 2010 and accounts for more than 70% of all lettuce grown in America—itself the world’s second-biggest exporter of the stuff. It is a fiddly business. As well as having to be fertilised and weeded, lettuce must also be “thinned” so that good plants do not grow too close to each other, inhibiting growth. Much of this is still done by hand. Labourers, who tend to be paid per acre, not per hour, have little incentive to pay close attention to what they pull from the ground, often leading to unnecessary waste.

Enter Lettuce Bot, the brainchild of two Stanford-trained engineers, Jorge Heraud and Lee Redden. Their diligent robotic labourer, pulled behind a tractor, starts by taking pictures of passing plants. Computer-vision algorithms devised by Mr Redden compare these to a database of more than a million images, taken from different angles against different backdrops of soil and other plants, that he and Mr Heraud have amassed from their visits to lettuce farms. A simple shield blocks out the Californian sun to prevent odd shading from confounding the software.

When a plant is identified as a weed—or as a lettuce head that is growing too close to another one—a nozzle at the back of the unit squirts out a concentrated dose of fertiliser. This sounds bonkers, but it turns out that fertiliser can be as deadly as a pesticide, which is why farmers usually sprinkle it at a safe distance of 10-15cm from the plants to be nourished, so as to dilute its effect. So the robot not only kills weeds and excess heads, but feeds the remaining crops at the same time.

The battery-powered system crunches the images fast enough to work at 98% accuracy while chugging along at a bit less than 2kph. In September Blue River Technology, a start-up founded by Mr Heraud and Mr Redden, raised $3m from Khosla Ventures, a venture-capital firm. The launch of a commercial version of the robot is planned for next year. Mr Heraud is coy about Lettuce Bot’s cost, but says it will be competitive with manual labour.

Its creators are also working on a machine capable of excising weeds mechanically using a rotating blade. Indeed, the robot was originally conceived as an automated lawnmower for parks and other public places but legal issues—think spinning metal blades in areas frequented by children—prompted Mr Heraud and Mr Redden to turn to agricultural users instead. That would make it a boon to California’s organic farmers, who eschew the potent, weed-killing fertiliser. Next in Mr Heraud’s and Mr Redden’s sights is corn (maize), America’s biggest crop. Teaching the robot to deal with plants like tomatoes, where distinguishing weeds from the crop can be hard even for humans, will take longer.

Lettuce Bot is just one of many robots intended to automate aspects of agriculture and horticulture that are still highly labour-intensive, even in the rich world. The Vineland Research and Innovation Centre in Ontario is working on one robot to plant tulip bulbs and replant seedlings, another to harvest, trim and package mushrooms and a third to package potted plants. And the Harvest Vehicle HV-100, otherwise known as Harvey, built by Harvest Automation, a firm based in Massachusetts, is designed to move potted shrubs and trees around in plant nurseries. Where these machines lead, other green-fingered robots may follow.

by on Dec. 4, 2012 at 9:48 AM
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Replies (1-10):
mikiemom
by Ruby Member on Dec. 4, 2012 at 10:53 AM

It was only a matter of time before robotic farm equipment advanced to this point. I imagine that these machines will only be available to the big farmers who can afford them. My wish would be to go back to the small family farm but that is long gone. These workers that are losing their jobs are going to need to adapt. We can not stop progress because folks can't adapt.

futureshock
by Ruby Member on Dec. 4, 2012 at 10:57 AM

Good points.

Quoting mikiemom:

It was only a matter of time before robotic farm equipment advanced to this point. I imagine that these machines will only be available to the big farmers who can afford them. My wish would be to go back to the small family farm but that is long gone. These workers that are losing their jobs are going to need to adapt. We can not stop progress because folks can't adapt.


Sisteract
by Whoopie on Dec. 4, 2012 at 11:22 AM


Quoting mikiemom:

It was only a matter of time before robotic farm equipment advanced to this point. I imagine that these machines will only be available to the big farmers who can afford them. My wish would be to go back to the small family farm but that is long gone. These workers that are losing their jobs are going to need to adapt. We can not stop progress because folks can't adapt.

This

erika9009
by Bronze Member on Dec. 4, 2012 at 11:34 AM
1 mom liked this

Since I am in CA, and I ride my road bike around farms that grow artichokes to wine grapes, these machines will have use their use.  Some crops probably won't do very well, others will do fine on machine picking.

This is something that will need to be adapted to.  Some farms will start to put on their labels "Hand Picked", to imply it's better.

ReadWriteLuv
by Silver Member on Dec. 4, 2012 at 11:35 AM

Ok, I'll go there.

I live north of Seattle in an area with hundreds of small farms, orchards and vinyards. I won't say the "majority", but probably 40% of the county to the east of me is populated by immigrants of both the legal and illegal variety. The population is so great, in fact, that the two school districts 20 minutes to the east of me require core classes be taught in both English and Spanish, much to the chagrin of parents with non-Spanish speaking children. Where do all of the parents of the immigrant children work? You guessed it, on the farms. Small farming families aren't doing this work on their own, they are hiring migrant workers for minimum wage or lower to do their dirty work. The farmers and their families themselves aren't going to be negatively affected by this. The immigrant workers will be.

These people migrated here obviously because there was work. If you take away their minimum wage job, especially if they are illegal and have no paperwork in order to get a legit job, will theses people go back to their country of origin, or will they stay here and flounder or resort to illegal activity to live?

gdiamante
by Silver Member on Dec. 4, 2012 at 11:43 AM

This isn't a picker but an exterminator, from what I read. It's not handling the actual picking of lettuce but rather the "thinning" to remove weeds. 

I haven't seen much data about voting rates among farm workers but if they're low, this will have zero impact on politics in California.

Mommy_of_Riley
by Jes on Dec. 4, 2012 at 11:44 AM
Well first of all only the huge corporations will be able to afford these. The small family run farm won't.

Secondly... It will make a dent in the Migrant Worker population in CA. These people live picking vegetables and fruit throughout the year. If there's nothing to pick will they go back to Mexico?
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radioheid
by Libertarian on Dec. 4, 2012 at 11:50 AM

 This. I lived in Salinas, CA for 4 years, my son still lives there with his father, and this will only have a negative impact on the community when all of those immigrant pickers are put out of work. I'm sure many will move on to farms that haven't adopted the technology, others will head back across the border, but many will be left behind with no means to support themselves---there simply aren't enough day-labor construction, landscaping/gardening, housekeeping or nanny jobs to cover them.

Quoting ReadWriteLuv:

Ok, I'll go there.

I live north of Seattle in an area with hundreds of small farms, orchards and vinyards. I won't say the "majority", but probably 40% of the county to the east of me is populated by immigrants of both the legal and illegal variety. The population is so great, in fact, that the two school districts 20 minutes to the east of me require core classes be taught in both English and Spanish, much to the chagrin of parents with non-Spanish speaking children. Where do all of the parents of the immigrants work? You guessed it, on the farms. Small farming families aren't doing this work on their own, they are hiring migrant workers for minimum wage or lower to do their dirty work. The farmers and their families themselves aren't going to be negatively affected by this. The immigrant workers will be.

These people migrated here obviously because there was work. If you take away their minimum wage job, especially if they are illegal and have no paperwork in order to get a lefit job, will theses people go back to their country of origin, or will they stay here and flounder or resort to illegal activity to live?

 


"Roger that. Over."

R   A   D    I    O    H    E    I    D

erika9009
by Bronze Member on Dec. 4, 2012 at 11:53 AM

You are impling they are all illegals.  I can tell you from farms I have been too in my various travels that not all illegals.   The farmers have these porta potties and worker info boards mounted on trailers that go from field to field.   I have also seen inspectors out there checking ID's and permits. 

I think I see more illegals in construction than farming.  I realized that is just subjective, but that is all I have really.

Quoting Mommy_of_Riley:

Well first of all only the huge corporations will be able to afford these. The small family run farm won't.

Secondly... It will make a dent in the Migrant Worker population in CA. These people live picking vegetables and fruit throughout the year. If there's nothing to pick will they go back to Mexico?


____________________________________________________

Erika..

Children are a blessing and are never inconvenient.............

Sisteract
by Whoopie on Dec. 4, 2012 at 11:53 AM

This machine is used for thinning closely growing crops and poisoning/extracting weeds, not for picking the products.

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