MENLO PARK, CA - President Trump's executive order on immigration has much of the tech world rallying against it. But for one small corner, agricultural technology, it represents an opportunity.
Farmers have been facing an increasingly tight labor market for years. The immigrant workforce that has long picked and packed the nation's fruits and vegetables move to better jobs as soon as they can, replaced by new immigrants.
Due to a strong Mexican economy that's created more opportunity there, and increased border enforcement, the number of people to replenish the workforce has dropped significantly, said Erik Nicholson, a national vice president with the United Farm Workers of America.
Robotic, sensor and other companies are striving to fill that hole. The technology, from a Lettuce Bot to crop drones to robotic strawberry pickers, is still in its infancy. But agricultural-tech companies say any policies that further keep out immigrants is likely to increase demand.
Like many companies, Taylor Farms in Salinas, Calif., is experimenting with multiple tech solutions — dozens, in fact. One involves a Ramsay Highlander harvester that cuts lettuce and spinach with a jet of water rather than requiring a worker to bend down and cut the vegetables with a knife. However, that requires lettuce rows that are mathematically precise and lettuce heads that are evenly spaced.
That led Taylor to work with Blue River Technology in Sunnyvale, Calif., which makes the Lettuce Bot, a machine that can thin 5,000 plants per minute within in a quarter of an inch spacing while running at four miles per hour.
Trump’s immigration policies “are going to force us to solve our labor problems faster,” said Bruce Taylor, CEO of Taylor Farms, one of the nation’s largest fresh-cut fruit and vegetable suppliers. Taylor spoke at the THRIVE AgTech Innovation Forum here Wednesday.
In contrast to large commodity crops such as soybeans, fruits and vegetables are mostly still worked and harvested by hand because of their specialty nature.
California has an estimated 330,000 farmworkers, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Manuel Cunha, president of the Fresno-based Nisei Farmers League, believes as many as 80% may be undocumented.
Should more stringent immigration rules go into effect, those workers will flee, Cunha said. “They’re worried about having their families busted, so they’re going to leave,” he said.
Of particular concern is a requirement in an early version of the proposed immigration executive order that would expand E-Verify, an Internet-based system for businesses to verify worker eligibility. Between that and what he sees as onerous regulation, he says farm labor costs could become unsustainable.
The labor shortage is especially acute in California, which grows one-third of the nation's vegetables and two-thirds of its fruits and nuts, according to the state's Department of Food and Agriculture. In a state that produces $47 billion in agricultural products a year, farmers say labor is the No. 1 challenge.
"I have growers who have had to leave crops in the field to rot because they can't get pickers," said Karen Caplan, president and CEO of Frieda's, a specialty produce company based near Los Angeles.
Driscoll's, the nation's largest producer of berries, is working on a robotic strawberry picker with Spain-based AgroBot but it's several years away from being field-ready.
"Our customers want more berries, and we could grow them — but we can't pick and pack them," said Kevin Murphy, CEO of Driscoll’s in Watsonville, Calif..
Like a human picker, the machine must be able to determine with a single glance whether a strawberry is fully ripe, properly shaped and worth picking. It uses optical recognition, taking pictures of the berry from multiple angles and crunching the data to determine if it's ripe.
To get the workforce it needs, Driscoll’s Murphy says it's having to rethink everything about how it grows the berries it sells. That includes growing outdoors on raised tables and on trellises to make picking more efficient and easier for a workforce that's not interested in backbreaking labor.
He thinks if suppliers can make farm work more appealing by judiciously using technology they’ll be able to get the workers they need.
“We've got to get aggressive in how we think about this, so we make the work easier and more efficient. There are people who will want to do it — there are lots of people who like to work outside, who don’t want to sit in an office all day,” he said.
The UFW agrees. "Right now, it’s a job of desperation. We want to see it become more attractive, a viable profession,” said Nicholson.
Western Growers, a consortium of fresh produce growers and packers, opened a Center for Innovation and Technology in Salinas in 2015 specifically to encourage startups to tackle the problems agriculture faces.
“We’re in a constant search for new technology because of the pressures on labor,” said Hank Giclas vice president for science and technology at the Consortium.
Many ag-tech companies are based in Europe, where high labor costs have long been a driver of technological solutions for farms.
Swiss-based Gamaya makes cameras can be mounted on drones or all-terrain vehicles and use algorithms to estimate expected crop yields. That’s crucial for high-value crops like grapes, berries and organics, where a field’s worth of produce is pre-sold just before harvest.
It’s also labor-intensive when done by humans, who must scout through each field.
“You don’t need to send ten tractors out in the field, you just send the drone over,” said co-founder Igor Ivanov.
Gamaya plans to begin testing its system in the United States in April. Tech solutions for farms are growing in the United States “and with Trump’s policies I think it’s going to get much worse more quickly than we’d expected,” said Ivanov.
AgroBot, the Spain-based maker of the robotic berry pickers, sees more potential given the current political climate in the United States.
“In the past, the solution was to move the crops to Mexico where labor was cheaper, but with Trump that’s getting more complicated, so now maybe only technology will be the solution,” said Juan Bravo, founder of AgroBot.