Hand work is essential, but machines can help
Have you ever thought about why farmers need to hire so much labor to get the food on your table?
Hired labor is a crucial part of planting and harvesting fresh produce. Think of the items you purchase most in the produce section, they are often delicate, with a soft flesh, and optimal ripeness. Harvesting strawberries, for instance, would result in a lot more strawberry preserves and a lot fewer whole berries.
A mobile workforce
Hired labor is essential for getting products from farm to table. Much of this labor need is fulfilled by the immigrant workforce, in fact estimates say that 73% of the agricultural workforce is made up of immigrants. Since there is a large amount of work that needs to be done in a particular timeframe and after harvest, there are only a few positions available on farm.
Laborers will travel from farm to farm, throughout regions or even throughout the country, following the harvest seasons of various crops. Labor is one of the most expensive parts of growing produce, taking up as much as 48% of farm income.
One way to reduce the needs of labor is to increase the efficiency of harvest, combine tasks, or completely automate the process with equipment.
Many vegetables and grain crops have the ability to be harvested by machine, or with some machine assistance—this makes the harvesting process more efficient and the overall end products cheaper.
Hand harvesting by hired laborers is how most fruits and many vegetables are picked. Machines cannot discern between which products needs to be picked and which need more time in the field or which are not fit for the market so a lot more sorting needs to be done post-harvest.
Crops that mature all at the same time, evenly across the field, can be picked with machines, but crops that mature in waves, having ripe fruit and unripe fruit on the plant simultaneously, need someone to pick which ones are ready to be harvested in that moment.
There are many ways we can utilize technology and equipment to make harvest season go a little smoother.
Take a look at some these unique harvesting techniques.
Some operations have multi-arm bucket machines which save hand laborers from having to climb up and down ladders or use extension grabbers to pick citrus fruit.
Asparagus harvesting machine
I recently got to tour a Michigan asparagus farm and learned how asparagus is harvested. This produce is hand cut each day, sometimes twice a day, using these seats pulled behind a tractor.
The tractor drives through the field at a consistent speed and a worker sitting in these seats behind the tractor is bent over and harvesting the correct size asparagus.
Celery harvesting is machine assisted as well. A tractor drives in front of hand harvesters so they can cut, prepare, and package the celery then store it on the tractor. This increases the efficiency of harvest, even though it’s not 100% machine.
Tree shaking equipment is used for some tree-fruit and especially used in tree nut harvesting. These machines shake the trees so ripe fruits/nuts fall onto the ground or into catching devices.
Tree-nuts are shaken off the tree, swept into rows, and then vacuumed up when harvested. Other crops that utilize tree shakers often have tarps or nets below the trees to catch the falling fruit which is then stored in bins.
Carrots are dug and grabbed by the tops, leaving them dangling below the machine before they make it to a conveyor belt. This crop is almost completely machine harvested throughout the country. Other root vegetables and peanuts are also harvested using digging machines.
Artificial Intelligence technology
While artificial intelligence has been making waves in our society for some time, the technology is relatively new when it comes to harvesting produce. A new robotic harvesting machine has been deployed in Florida strawberry fields this year, and it’s looking very promising.
As mentioned before, one main problem with machine harvesting is that a lot of fruits don’t mature at the same time, they are picked in waves and a machine can’t determine which fruits are ripe for picking or not. New AI robots can scan fruit and only harvest the ripened selections.
About the author
When not tending to her own 17-acre farm, Michelle Miller aka The Farm Babe is a writer, public speaker, and social media influencer on food and modern agriculture. Learn more about her at thefarmbabe.com.
Check out how these new machines work here: