If there’s a theme to this roundup of predictions for the year ahead, it is “efficiency.” From hands-free growing and picking to real-time monitoring and data-driven marketing, the produce industry is looking for ways to lower costs, discover problems quickly, make informed decisions, and reduce the time from harvest to shelf.
Reengineering, Sensors, Transparency
Innovation will play a key role in the perishables industry in 2018, continuing the progress of the last few years. As more crop processes can be mechanized, it will not only alleviate the labor crunch but speed up the supply chain from field to fork. But mechanization isn’t always the answer—there is also room for ingenuity and science to work together, providing new solutions to old problems.
“There’s been a little bit of a shift, if you will, forcing attention to the supply side,” observes Don Goforth, director of marketing for Family Tree Farms Marketing, LLC in Reedley, CA. “It’s caused by the overall strain on agribusiness as a whole.”
In response, Family Tree Farms wanted to reduce costs in the field. “On tree fruit, 70 to 80 percent of the expense is labor,” Goforth explains, noting that most labor hours are related to the use of ladders for pickers. A way around ladders is shorter trees, so the grower began dwarfing root stock to develop ‘pedestrian’ orchards where fruit could be picked from the ground. Smaller trees also allowed for greater orchard density, increasing yields. The result? Faster harvests and higher yields on the same acreage, but at a lower cost.
Ed Treacy, vice president of supply chain efficiencies at the Produce Marketing Association in Newark, DE, says technologies that save labor are a big focus for industry research and development, citing as examples robotics for harvesting, planting, and thinning in the field, as well as warehouse voice pick systems.
“Labor is the number-one controllable cost in most operations,” Treacy says, and there is a lot being offered out there to help.”
Robotic harvesting, to name one area of interest, range from multiple-arm apple harvesting machines from Abundant Robotics to a patented automated strawberry picker from Harvest CROO, a company founded by Florida strawberry and blueberry supplier Wish Farms.
“Automation is not about robots replacing a person, it’s about better systems, and this requires new sets of skills,” stresses Treacy.
He also points out the importance of attracting new talent into the industry, especially students in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields to modernize operations and the supply chain.