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The Year Ahead: Technology and labor

2024 year ahead

Technology and labor shortages go hand-in-hand.

“Labor issues are starting to stabilize, but they remain a real concern for most retailers and suppliers I speak with,” says Kevin Brooks, chief revenue and marketing officer at supply chain service provider Procurant BB #:355257 in Watsonville, CA.

“Depending on where things go with the overall economy, labor is likely to remain a top challenge for everyone. It’s one of the drivers behind technology, making those workers you do have much more efficient and effective.”

At retail, while technology can solve some labor problems, employees are essential to the shopper experience, says Ashley Nickle of Ashley Nickle Growth Strategies, LLC in Kansas City, KS.

“Maximizing efficiency will always be a goal in a business with such thin margins, but people make or break the in-store experience,” she cautions.

“Investments in skills and knowledge training, career pathing, and other retention efforts—along with staffing stores abundantly rather than sparsely—won’t pay off immediately, but they’ll propel the business from the inside out in years to come.”

For foodservice operators, less is becoming more with the use of technology.

“In California, we’re closely monitoring the situation around the $20 per hour minimum wage for fast food workers [effective April 2024] and the implications for the industry as a whole,” says Jin Ju Wilder, vice president of marketing and business development for Vesta Foodservice BB #:125924 in Santa Fe Springs, CA.

“Many formats have already put in self-order kiosks and QR codes at tables for ordering, and many operators are testing automation and robots for meal prep.”

Labor shortages have also been an ongoing issue in trucking and transportation.

“For me, not much has changed,” admits Fred Plotsky, president of transportation broker Cool Runnings, Ltd. BB #:125423 in Kenosha, WI. “We have an aging driver pool and a young population that doesn’t want to take the job. I guess the next big thing is trying to replace the driver.”

But Plotsky points out that the job of delivering produce is about more than just driving. “You have to know what you’re doing.”

On the grower end, labor continues to be a serious impediment to production.

“Labor cost and availability remain one of the largest challenges for the horticultural sector, which is still heavily reliant on manual labor and foreign worker programs,” explains Darby McGrath, vice president of research and development at Vineland Research and Innovation Centre in Vineland Station, ON.

“The application of cost-effective and robust automation and the integration of robotics, machine vision, data processing, and systems engineering have progressed to the point where high-tech solutions for farming practices are now viable,” she adds.

Although this is certainly good news, McGrath says there are still gaps in plant-handling and crop-management applications, as well as a need for different business models for the application of automation.

She believes there are three key areas where postharvest technology and research will continue to advance: automation of grading, sorting, and packing in both greenhouse and field settings; the use of vision capabilities, like industrial manufacturing and vision systems, to help with the inspection of fresh produce; and the use of high-tech sanitization solutions to reduce or eliminate pathogens in the field or on the packing line.

The area of sanitation solutions is “gaining traction as research demonstrates this approach can both ‘clean’ produce while also extending shelf life in some cases,” McGrath explains.

Tammy Collum, in sales for Vanguard Direct, LLC BB #:338552 of Bakersfield, CA, which grows in Peru, is seeing changes firsthand. “More grape growers around the world are testing new technology that continues to be developed for agriculture practices.”

She cites examples such as robotic equipment for moving the fruit from field to truck, special packaging materials to put in grape boxes to extend shelf life, and technology to help calculate yields.

“So much of grape harvesting must still be done by hand outdoors, but new packing lines and packaging are also being created to be more efficient when it comes to packing grapes indoors,” Collum adds.

This is an excerpt from the feature story from the January/February 2024 issue of Produce Blueprints Magazine. Click here to read the whole issue.