The Challenge of Automation in Strawberry Fields

By Tim Hammerich,with the AgInformation Network

A few weeks ago, we were able to report that the strawberry crop outlook was very optimistic for California growers. While supply and demand both look strong, farmers are still wrestling with a big challenge: labor.

California Strawberry Commission Communications Director Carolyn O’Donnell said it will be a challenge.

“Labor is definitely one of the biggest concerns that they see is the ability to be able to plant, weed, and harvest to their crop, because all of those things are done by hand,” said O’Donnell.  “There are some efforts going underway to find different ways to use automation or mechanical ways to do this, but because it’s such a delicate fruit and it’s picked on the plant and packed directly into the clamshell where you buy it in the grocery store.

The goal is to find machinery that can mimic, not only the touch of a hand, which can adjust itself to how firm things are. But also something that doesn’t damage the plant because they’re harvesting from the same plants two, sometimes three times a week, over a number of months. So you want to keep the plants intact,”she said

O’Donnell said it’s not just the fact that human labor is more delicate with the fruit and the plants. It’s also the art of identifying and picking only those fruit that are ready for market.

“The other thing is that being able to judge. Is this berry ready and ripe to be picked? So having the optics that are able  to judge what’s right for picking,” she said.

The future is likely a combination of skilled labor and new technologies to help our strawberry growers remain competitive.