Last month, Western Growers announced it was spearheading a Global Harvest Automation Initiative. The hope is to accelerate harvest automation across the fresh produce industry, with a goal of automating 50% of harvest within the next decade. Walt Duflock with Western Growers said fresh produce growers have struggled to find an adequate workforce for several years. He said it’s a combination of issues. Duflock notes the younger generation of farm workers are no longer interested in the job, meaning the numbers from which to draw just aren’t what they use to be.

"And, oh, by the way, we’ve triple production in the past seventy years, and much of it has been on the specialty crops and fresh fruits and vegetables.  So, you know you triple the production over a couple of decades, you get an aging workforce and a generational trend that goes away and that’s combine to leave farmers in a really tough position.”

Duflock added part of Western Growers’ effort will be getting all automation efforts on the same page, rather than having multiple companies or organizations trying to invent the wheel. He said currently one of the biggest challenges in automation is “teaching” the artificial intelligence what to harvest and what to leave. He said it’s important to think about how many pictures will be needed to the AI can differentiate an apple from something that isn’t an apple, as well as apples ready to harvest and apples not ready to be pulled.

“And just as a rough number, I’ll share with you, my friend at SRI, he said it took 100 million images to differentiate dogs and cats for an artificial intelligence algorithm.  Well, now put all of the complexities that is agriculture, right?  Different lighting, different times of day different weather conditions different temperature, different glare factors and it makes dogs and cats look like a warm-up act.”

Duflock noted the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission has been a key partner in the automation effort. In fact, the WTFRC has committee $200,000 in funding over the next three years to support this effort.

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