July 2021, Volume 27, Number 3
The Global Harvest Automation Initiative aims to speed up labor-saving change in the fresh produce industry. Denver-based Tortuga says that its robotic harvesters can pick blueberries, strawberries and vegetables on a cost-per-pound basis that is competitive with hand harvesters. More farmers are also adopting mechanical aids that make hand labor more efficient.
Soft tree fruits are harvested by hand because shake-and-catch machines would leave peaches bruised and unmarketable. Engineers are working on shake-and-catch machines with inflatable arms that would pick and catch peaches and other soft fruit so that it does not hit limbs as it falls. Since each peach tree has at least 1,000 pieces of fruit, shake and catch is most economical because the most advanced robots that detect and pick individual fruit would require 50 minutes to pick 1,000 pieces of fruit.
There are several important differences between hiring workers and buying machines. Workers are a variable cost, so employers do not incur labor costs if there is no crop, while machines are a fixed cost regardless of whether there is a crop. Wages are taxed, so that paying a worker $1 means an additional 25 to 30 percent in payroll taxes, while purchasing machines is often subsidized, since employers can write off or depreciate the cost of the machine and reduce their tax bill.
California expects a 2.8 billion-pound almond crop in 2021 from 1.3 million bearing acres, meaning an average yield of 2,150 pounds an acre. California produces 80 percent of the world’s almonds, and the US is the world’s largest consumer of almonds and almond products. However, growing almonds requires 1.3 million gallons of water a year for each tree, so acreage has been expanding in the Sacramento Valley with more water and may shrink in the San Joaquin Valley.
Farmers are grappling with the theft of high-value nuts. A truckload of pistachios worth almost $200,000 was stolen from Touchstone Pistachio in Terra Bella in spring 2021, leading to the arrest of a truck driver.
Almonds also require lots of water, a gallon per nut by some estimates. Water requirements are usually measured how many acre-feet of water are required for each acre planted. Almonds require three to four acre feet of water, which is less than water requirements for rice, irrigated pasture or alfalfa hay that is fed to dairy cows. Alfalfa accounted for four percent of California’s farm revenues in 2018 but used 18 percent of the state’s irrigation water.
Prima Wawona, California’s largest producer of soft tree fruits such as nectarines and peaches, announced plans to expand from 12,400 to 15,000 acres. The company replants 1,000 acres of tree fruit each year.
California expected almost 10 million 18-pound boxes of fresh cherries in 2021, almost matching the record of 2017. San Joaquin county produces 60 percent of the state’s cherries, offering piece-rate wages to workers that enable some to earn $25 an hour or more. Northwest Cherry Growers predicted 238,000 tons or 22 million 20-pound boxes of cherries from Oregon and Washington; the peak northwest cherry harvest was 26 million boxes in 2017.