PLANT CITY – A company backed by strawberry growers in Florida and California is developing a high-tech robot that can pick and package berries in the field.
Harvest CROO Robotics has already spent $1 million on a prototype automated picker. Research is continuing, and the company working on a more advanced model to harvest strawberries by the 2016-17 season, said Gary Wishnatzki, owner of Wish Farms, one of Plant City’s largest producers.
The challenge is developing a harvester that can pick berries planted in rows, which is the norm for strawberry farms, he said.
“I charged our engineers with the task of creating a ‘picker’ that does not require growers to radically change the way they currently grow,” Wishnatzki said. “That is the major reason other robotic harvesters have not yet been commercialized.”
A successful automatic harvester needs optics that can distinguish between ripe berries and those that are green, Wishnatzki added. Fields are harvested about every third day during the season as berries ripen, so a robotic picker needs to leave behind those that haven’t matured, he said.
Wishnatzki said strawberry growers in the U.S. spend about $750 million a year on labor, and frequently there aren’t enough available pickers.
“There is a huge need for this because I know from personal experience that we have a shrinking work force,” he said.
He founded Harvest CROO in Plant City with Bob Pitzer, who is the chief technical officer.
The company was founded in 2012 and tried out its prototype in the field this past season.
“We learned a lot this year from the experience we had in the field,” he said.
Field trials will continue during the summer and through the 2015-16 season, he said.
Investors in the firm include growers Sweet Life Farms, Sam Astin III, California Giant, Inc., Main Street Produce, Inc., Sweet Darling Sales, Inc., Innovative Produce Inc., and DG Berry, Inc.
Most of the nation’s winter strawberries are grown on about 11,000 acres in the Plant City-Dover area. California is the nation’s largest producer of strawberries.