PLANT CITY — Strawberry fields dotted with hunched-over workers plucking and packaging, then hustling the delicate red fruit to waiting trucks — it is an iconic winter scene embedded in the patchwork of homes and farms that make up eastern Hillsborough County.
That scene is changing, though, as the labor pool shrinks and technology comes knocking. Wish Farms owner Gary Wishnatzki and his engineer partner Bob Pitzer are banking on technology.
As strawberry season wrapped up in February, their prototype driverless strawberry-picking machine drove into the fields for some test runs. The results were impressive and enlightening, Wishnatzki said.
The offseason will be filled with work on the machine’s speed and accuracy, but mostly its speed for picking and packing, Pitzer said.
The pair’s goal is to have their alpha unit in the fields by late 2016. Eventually, they hope to build multiple picking machines and offer them to growers who would pay them on a per-box basis.
Their company, Harvest CROO Robotics LLC, already has a utility patent and a provisional patent filed on the machine.
For some three yearsnow, farmers have been forced to abandon millions of dollars worth of strawberries in fields, mostly in Hillsborough and Manatee counties, because they lacked laborers, industry experts say. The problem has been just as dire in California, Arizona and other farm communities.
This year, Wishnatzki said, a number of berry farmers simply did not plant as much acreage because they feared a lack of farm labor would leave berries rotting in the fields. This region, the nation’s winter strawberry capital, typically harvests 10,000 to 11,000 acres of strawberries. It is Hillsborough County’s most lucrative crop, accounting for at least 45 percent of the economic impact of farming here, according to county figures. It has an economic impact of about $1 billion, including picking, packaging, marketing and retail sales, according to the Florida Strawberry Growers Association.
The reasons for the shrinking worker pool are numerous. Migrant workers who have picked the fields for years are aging. Young adults in migrant families already in the United States are getting better educations and have more options these days, including the construction industry, which again is on the upswing. Stricter security is allowing fewer undocumented workers to cross the border from Mexico. And Mexicans are having much smaller families now — just over two children per family, compared with 7.3 per family in 1960, according to a Pew Hispanic Center report released in 2012.
And since Mexico’s economy bounced back faster than that of the U.S., more Mexicans have been able to find work closer to home, according to the study.
“People who are good at it make good money, but migrant work is hard work and typically requires families to move around,” Wishnatzki said, something many of them no longer are willing to do. It’s a predicament, he said, and it got him thinking.
“We came up with a concept we perceive as a necessity,” Wishnatzki said. “The labor pool has been shrinking for over 10 years now. It has been pretty devastating.” So in 2012, he and Pitzer formed their partnership, Harvest CROO Robotics, to develop a mechanical picker.
CROO stands for Computerized Robotic Optimized Obtainer.
It is not the first attempt at automating strawberry fields, but most of the other machines out there would require farmers to drastically change the way they grow their berries, making the designs commercially impractical, Pitzer said. Their picking machine goes with today’s practices, he said.
The Harvest CROO design has multiple picking heads that will move across a field, picking 25 acres over a three-day period, the typical time for picking fruit as it ripens. It has a “vision system” to distinguish between red and green strawberries and is able to get under the leaves to find and pluck the ripe berries.
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Picking strawberries is nothing like using a combine on a corn field, coming through and thrashing down the plants. Strawberries are delicate and ripen in various intervals, which Harvest CROO is taking into account in developing its machine.
“One of the things we were concentrating on this last year is the fundamental problem with getting berries out from under the plants and what you do with them once you have them,” Pitzer said. “We proved the concept we have for actual picking in an open field environment. So we can check that off.”
So far, the Harvest CROO partners said they have spent about $1 million developing the machine, but they declined to project what they might spend by the time development is complete.
Wishnatzki’s Wish Farms produces 600 to 800 acres of strawberries each year from fields in Manatee County. In Plant City, Wish Farms, in operation since 1922 and owned by Wishnatzki’s family since 1929, markets strawberries from various growers across the region under the company label.
Pitzer, with a mechanical engineering degree from the University of Florida, spent the first portion of his career working with semiconductors, a field that is almost completely automated now, he said.
He also worked for several television shows designing fighting robots before returning to Florida in 2009.
Here, he opened a consulting firm, working on various robotics projects in the region and with the international USFIRST Robotics competition crew to produce tournaments. These days, he is an employee of Harvest CROO Robotics and spent hours in the berry fields over the past couple of years studying the techniques used by the best human pickers to help him in designing the new machine.
From the first time Kenneth Parker heard about Wishnatzki’s concept for a robotic strawberry-picking machine, he was excited, he said. The executive director of the Florida Strawberry Growers Association, based in Plant City, said the federal guest worker program has helped bridge the gap in terms of labor shortages, but only to an extent.
The H-2A Temporary Agricultural Program allows farmers to import workers from other countries temporarily if they can prove they can’t find domestic employees. But it is a difficult program to work in, Parker said. “It’s catching on, but it’s certainly not the ideal program. And it’s expensive for the farmers.
“We can’t have a conversation with any of our grower members without labor being one of their first concerns,” Parker said. “It’s not unusual to have a 30-minute conversation on how we need to address a safe, abundant, viable labor force. With mechanical harvesting as a potential in the future, it relieves a lot of the pressure on the farmers.”
A strawberry-picking machine will never completely replace the need for human labor in the fields, Wishnatzki said, but if the machines can supplement labor enough to keep the industry lucrative, he and Pitzer will have met their goal.
A couple of local strawberry farmers and a handful from California have invested in the machine, including Sam Astin III, whose company, Astin Farms, grows berries and runs the Strawberry Exchange, which markets and distributes some 40 million pounds of fruit each season, and Steve Howard, co-owner of Sweet Life Farms and several other ancillary businesses in the area.
Howard said he was sold on the machine’s concept the first time he spoke with Wishnatzki and his team.
“I have worked with Gary for years, and I have confidence in him. And when he offered for me to be an investor, I jumped on board,” Howard said. “The labor problems we are having are killing us, and we fully expect that they will continue.”
Also, he said, there are many issues and restrictions in dealing with human picking crews, some of which can be avoided by introducing a picking machine. Smaller crews, fewer headaches.
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Another big issue is the Florida heat, which causes the berries to bruise when picked in the sizzling afternoon heat, Howard said. “The machines can pick at night and avoid that bruising.
“We have high hopes for a great outcome with this machine within a couple of years,” Howard said.