Technology

A lettuce thinner created by an agricultural tech startup uses cameras and sensors to thin lettuce rows. Salinas, Calif., has hired a venture capital fund to help it attract other high-tech agricultural companies to the area.

http://www.npr.org/blogs/alltechconsidered/2013/12/19/255528018/a-city-turns-to-lettuce-fields-to-grow-high-tech-startups

“Salinas is just one hour south of California’s Silicon Valley, but generations behind when it comes to technology. Many of its sprawling lettuce farms are stuck in the era of rakes and hoes,” but city officials are hoping to change that — and also spur some job growth — by investing in high-tech agriculture.

In recent years, as the labor supply has tightened and competition from abroad has increased, growers have sought out machines to reduce labor costs and to supplement the nation’s unstable agricultural workforce.

Salinas has collaborated with neighbors over in Silicon Valley. The city of Salinas is trying to speed up this game of catch-up by becoming an investor, so they have invested close to $300,000, said Ray Corpuz, Salinas’ city manager. He said that “the city has something no one else has: the best lettuce fields in the country. So why not turn them into laboratories and attract tech investors?” As a result, the City of Salinas has hired a venture capital firm, San Jose-based SVG Partners. The venture fund is trying to raise $50 million to pay for a start up incubator — a common way to attract talent in Silicon Valley. ‘We’re actually setting up a new business model, actually, for … most local governments, for most cities,’ Corpuz said. ‘None of them, that I know, in the state of California are doing this.’

On the Salinas Valley farm, entrepreneurs with Mountain View-based start up Blue River Technology are trying to show that the Lettuce Bot can not only replace two dozen workers, but also improve production. Another company, San Diego-based Vision Robotics, is developing a similar lettuce thinner as well as a pruner for wine grapes. Researchers are now designing robots for these most delicate crops by integrating advanced sensors, powerful computing, electronics, computer vision, robotic hardware and algorithms, as well as networking and high precision GPS localization technologies. Most ag robots won’t be commercially available for about 10 years.

However, in this region, “where for a century fruits and vegetables have been planted, thinned and harvested by an army of migrant workers, the machines could prove revolutionary.” Farmers say farm robots could provide relief from recent labor shortages, lessen the unknowns of immigration reform, even reduce costs, increase quality and yield a more consistent product. Ron Yokota, a farming operations manager at Tanimura & Antle, said that “There aren’t enough workers to take the available jobs, so the robots can come and alleviate some of that problem.” Research into fresh produce mechanization was dormant for years because of an over-abundance of workers and pressures from farmworker labor unions.

Since new immigration laws and tactics have been implemented on the U.S.-Mexico border, fewer and fewer migrants are coming here from Mexico, so farms like Taylor have to invest in technology; but this investment in technology will also lead to more profit: Human Labor vs. Machines. Machines have replaced human labor in the past and it certainly will in the future. Many sectors in U.S. agriculture have relied on machines for decades and even the harvesting of fruits and vegetables meant for processing has slowly been mechanized. But nationwide, the vast majority of fresh-market fruit is still harvested by hand.

In addition, machines have proved not only clumsy, but inadequate in selecting ripe produce, and they cannot decipher color and feel, machines have a hard time distinguishing produce from leaves and branches. At Taylor Farms in Salinas, Andrew Fernandez, the company’s vice president of product looked at a big tractor that has a “water jet knife machine, and it’s on the cutting edge of lettuce farming technology. Water pistols shooting at 20,000 pounds per square inch are supposed to pick the lettuce out of the ground. But the water jet knives keep blowing the lettuce heads apart and killing the crop.” And most importantly, matching the dexterity and speed of farmworkers has proved elusive.

However, if this new technology does come into the fields, Salinas will change. The single largest employer, Capital One Bank, shut down its local branch and more than 800 people lost their jobs. If fieldworks lose their jobs, it will have tremendous impact on the city’s economy and across the cities of the Salinas Valley. Most of the local revenue comes from the migrant workers, and businesses feel the economic loss when these migrants leave in the winter.

The midsized City of Salinas is known for gang violence and could have more problems on its hands. Or will it? This technology will lead to loss of agriculture jobs, but it will increase technological jobs; this still will leave a big section of the population jobless. Will people commute or settle here when the people that lost their agriculture jobs leave? Leave where? Or will Salinas be faced with increasing poverty? These are all relevant and possible outcomes.

Bot, a machine that can “thin” a field of lettuce in the time it takes about 20 workers to do the job by hand. Farmworker advocates say mechanization would lead to workers losing jobs, growers using more pesticides and the food supply becoming less safe. However, “The fundamental question for consumers is who and, now, what do you want picking your food; a machine or a human?”

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