Fewer Farm Workers Push Ag Toward Tech

Dec 14, 2017

Farmers in the Salinas Valley are worried about how they will plant, grow and harvest crops in the future.

For more than three decades, the number of farm workers in California has been shrinking and those still on the job are getting older.  So, ag companies have been turning to technology for help.

One solution comes with the invention of PlantTape.  It starts in the greenhouse. There romaine lettuce sprouts are grown in paper compartments, which are connected to make a paperchain.  Once a tray of lettuce sprouts reaches the right size it’s loaded onto a specially designed trailer.

A tractor pulls that trailer through the field automatically transplanting the tape in the ground.  PlantTape leaves the lettuce perfectly spaced to make the best use of the sun and soil.

PlantTape’s Product Development Supervisor Danielle Vallejo says this technology saves time and money.  It would take at least 15 people to plant this crop the old way.

“We can plant the same amount in half the time with three people,” says Vallejo.

Salina ag giant Tanimura and Antle bought PlantTape from the Spanish company that invented it.  By using less workers in the fields, T&A can put those workers elsewhere.

“So we’re taking those people and moving them to harvest. We are not cutting out this labor. We are moving these people to where we need it,” says Vallejo.

The timing couldn’t be better for labor saving technology. Immigration is down and wages are going up in California.  

A recent change to overtime rules increased the cost of labor.  The state minimum wage is on its way up too.  It will be $15 an hour by 2023.  That plus current farm workers are getting older. 

“They are getting older in age and you know no longer able to do some of the jobs,” say Brian Antle, President of PlantTape.  “We look towards the next generation, but you know those workers have rightfully encouraged their children to obtain higher education and find better careers.”

But farm technology is still a work in progress. There are many jobs that are difficult to automate.  Antle explains, with obvious admiration, what it takes to harvest lettuce.

“The person cutting a head of lettuce knows how big that head should be in their hand.  They know how dense it should be, and they know how much it should weigh. They trim it.  They check for decay, mildew any insects that might be on it. Wrap it in a bag, put it in a box you know send it to your store.  But in the time it took me to tell you all that, they just cut four heads of lettuce. It’s extremely skilled,” says Antle.

Like lettuce, strawberries are also difficult to harvest.

At strawberry field in Watsonville a handful of workers are hunched over, picking the last berries of the season.

Soren Bjorn says this is a young person’s game.  He’s President of Driscoll’s of the Americas, the giant berry company.

“You know you are bending over all day to do this work, so that is very, very hard work. So that’s why, you know, the vast majority of strawberry harvesters are between the ages 18 and 35 years old,” says Bjorn.

Driscoll’s is working on a robot that can pick strawberries, but that technology is still years away. Until then, the company is trying a new low tech way to make harvesting easier for its workers.

“Clearly, one of the opportunities is to try to get these strawberry plants off the ground and that is what we see on the other side,” says Bjorn as he walks toward rows of long plastic tunnels.

Inside are tall, narrow tables. On each is a row of strawberry plants that runs from one end of the table to the other. The tables stand waist high.

“And so instead of bending over most of the day, they can stand up. And that really makes the work a lot more attractive,” says Bjorn.

These types of tables are already in use in Europe. Driscoll’s just started testing them in a few California fields and expects use to grow.

“Instead of aging out of the strawberry industry when you are 35, you can actually be here for much, much longer,” says Bjorn.

Technology companies see the shrinking workforce as an opportunity and they anxious to offer solutions. 

“It used to be seed salesmen and fertilizer salesmen knocking on our door.  Now it’s suit and ties out of Silicon Valley,” says PlantTape’s Brian Antle.  “ Everybody with a robot and a computer wanting to come talk to us.”

Farmers on the Central Coast are listening.