Orchard Owners Turning to Robot Labor?

Orchard Owners Turning to Robot Labor

Photo by Washington State University

Farmers in Washington State are worried that they won’t have enough workers to keep up with the harvest in coming years. Most orchards depend on migrant farmers to pick their crops, many of whom work illegally in the United States, according to the Associated Press. With the Trump administration’s promise to crack down on illegal immigration many workers are choosing to stay home. If this trend continues some farm and orchard owners are worried they won’t have the labor they need to clear their fields or trees.

But they’re already working on a solution to that, which may be as politically charged as the problem. Some orchard owners in Washington have decided to start looking into robotic picking machines to get their fruit off the trees and out to market.

If they can get these machines to work properly, there are some distinct advantages for the grove owners. For one thing, the machines can run 24-7 without a break, which could drastically reduce the time devoted to harvesting and actually allow growers to plant more fruit.

While many industries have long since gone to mechanical harvesters – this is common in the wheat, corn, soy and other industries. But the fragile nature of crops like strawberries, blueberries, and apples have not allowed growers to go mechanical. That may change. And, for growers, that can’t come soon enough.
President Trump’s strong stance on limiting illegal immigration – or what he calls ‘enforcing the law’ – has many growers worried about the future. There have been widespread reports of certain crops being left to rot in the fields this year for want of workers to harvest them. That’s not been the case for apples in Washington or strawberries in Florida this year, but it could be in the near future, and growers are trying to be prepared.

New equipment, especially unproven equipment, can be a steep expense for growers, but it’s one that will pay off in short order if the machines work as advertised. If the mechanical harvesters can collect fragile fruit without damaging too much of the crop, the worry about worker shortages might become an academic concern or even a thing of the past.

At this point the question remains up in the air, but, no matter what happens, there’s no escaping the politically-charged nature of this issue. While some workers are enraged that machines are taking their jobs, others are pushing to have more manual labor and manufacturing jobs in the United States.

That clash of idealism and fiscal realities has yet to come to a head, but there sure is a lot of “talk” about it in the media and online. And that means any decisions on this issue have to be communicated clearly and carefully to avoid negative responses from concerned consumers.

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