advanced.farm recently developed an automated harvester that can identify and harvest strawberries using a system of lasers, computers, and robotics.
“We are trying to bring agriculture into the 21st century,” Kyle Cobb, CEO of advanced.farm, tells Food Tank.
Cobb’s company is trying to revamp the way that farmers perform tasks beginning with their prototype automated harvester. The harvester works by moving through berry patches and scanning for ripe berries using the laser and computer system. Once a ripe berry has been identified, a robotic arm picks and places it into a basket so it can be packaged and sent to market.
Cobb believes the machine represents the next major technological advancement in agriculture. “We feel that farming practices can be improved so that everyone in the production process can have an improved workspace,” Cobb says.
Traditionally, strawberry harvesting practices are labor-intensive, requiring workers to spend many hours in fields picking berries by hand and later sorting and packaging. advanced.farm promises that their technology will remove some of the more labor-intensive aspects and improve harvest speeds.
According to Cobb, the technology can also help to reduce labor costs. He explains that the industry regularly updates regulations to ensure the quality of the produce. This requires farmers to invest more time and labor into production, which can be expensive for farmers.
Cobb sees the automated harvester as an ideal tool for midsize farmers who want to integrate technology and agriculture to optimize production. He believes that many farmers have recognized the need for this since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. “COVID-19 has been a test of resourcefulness of farmers. We have been working with our harvesters in the fields and showing farmers how our products can help them keep up and even improve production of strawberries,” Cobb tells Food Tank.
But many farmworkers have concerns about products like advanced.farm’s. Hernan Hernandez, Executive Director of the California Farmworker Foundation, explains that workers see automation as a threat to their jobs. He tells Food Tank, “[Farm workers] are most scared when machines pop up and they see their jobs going away. They aren’t sure what they can do about the situation.”
This fear is not new, says Hernandez. “For many years, we have seen tech popping up on farms and displacing workers. It is not a new trend.”
Despite concerns, Cobb says farmworkers aren’t going anywhere; rather they are more important than ever. He tells Food Tank, “We want to create a pilot program in the central valley for farmworkers to be retrained to operate the machines and help with design. They are the ones that know the best practices, and if we want to build the best machines we will need their help.”
To carry out this pilot program advanced.farm is introducing its advanced.jobs initiative, which aims to provide advanced technical training to farmworkers to improve and expand work opportunities.
Hernandez also is advocating for re-training programs to help bring jobs back to farmworkers. Hernandez explains, “We have been talking to the local community colleges to try and expand their programs related to automated farming. We want to help create a pathway for farmworkers to move to new fields of this industry.”
But Hernandez also believes that farmworkers should help design and operate the machines. Only with their input can companies ensure that new technology addresses workers’ needs.
But even with this support for workers that feel the threat of displacement, Cobb is thinking about the way the harvester can help with labor shortages, such as those caused by COVID-19. He believes the pandemic demonstrated the need for alternatives and sees the harvester filling this gap. Cobb states, “We are excited to continue to grow and design a better farming system for consumers and farmers.”
Image courtesy of Kyle Cobb