Strawberry-picking robots give hope to B.C. farmers amid worker shortage
The ancient Romans were on to something when they first cultivated strawberries, the heart-shaped fruit that’s come to be associated with love and the goddess Venus. And while Valentine’s Day may be a busy time for some retailers selling the so-called “love fruit” in chocolate-dipped form, it’s an ordinary day for B.C. growers who, amid rising wages and a dwindling worker pool, are bracing for another heartbreaking season.
“We left about 15 per cent of our product on the field because we didn’t have enough labour to finish the harvest,” said Alf Krause, owner-operator of Krause Berry Farms and Estate Winery in Langley, B.C. “Wages have gone up consistently over the last five years by ten to fifteen per cent [and] we’re not sure where we’re supposed to find that money.”
Krause, who harvests strawberries, blueberries and raspberries across his 200-acre farm, employs 20 workers in the off-season and up to 200 in the summer peak. He stays competitive throughout the year by operating a winery, market, bakery, and waffle bar. He said he consistently experiences a 20 per cent labour shortage.
That’s where B.C.-based tech start-up, Neupeak Robotics hopes to lend a mechanical hand. The company co-founded by Anshul Porwal is using strawberry harvesting as a seeding ground for testing “intelligent” arms capable of nestling through bushy leaves, spotting the red flesh and quickly plucking the berries – all with the calyx intact.
He recalls cold calling 25 farmers to discuss the viability of the idea after hearing predictions that the industry is five to ten years away from becoming unviable in North America if minimum wages kept rising.
“They wanted me to come over the next day with robots that can be put to work,” he said. “You can see how desperate these farmers are.”
Labour is also a problem south of the border in California, where 70 to 75 per cent of its strawberries (or 200-million pounds) are exported to Canada.
“We have increasing minimum wages and overtime laws so it’s putting additional pressure on our growers,” said John Lin, production automation manager with the California Strawberry Commission.
More than 60 to 65 per cent of production costs in strawberry harvesting is spent on labour, which equates to US$2.3 billion in California, according to Lin. He estimates automation can generate close to US$2 billion in potential labour savings in the state, which produces 90 per cent of all strawberries consumed in the U.S.
Lin notes that while agri-tech is common for harvesting high-acre crops like corn, wheat and soy, it’s only within the last five years that large investments have been made in automation for specialty crops like berries.
The biggest advancement came with the Colby harvester - a four-foot wide, one-foot tall floating conveyer belt that extends to 80 feet and hovers over rows of strawberries, performing the work of a human labourer in half the time: pick, assess quality, and pack - all in the field.
More recent advancements include double-barrel vacuums for killing pests without the use of chemicals. Such equipment however isn’t viable for B.C. farmers who, despite accounting for one-third of Canada’s total fruit production, are also seeing agricultural lands shrink. According to Statistics Canada, total land area used for strawberry harvesting nationally has declined nine per cent in the last five years alone.
Unlike its U.S. counterparts, who are using industry-grade robotic arms typically seen in car factories, Neupeak’s robots are the size of a German shepherd, small enough to be transported from a field to a greenhouse, picking strawberries to baby tomatoes.
It’s a more sustainable investment option for farmers like Krause.
“Operations need to be large enough to afford certain mechanical aids that can cost upwards to a million dollars,” he said. “A machine can be working 24 hours a day but then again, you only have so many acres.”