With heightened concerns over labor availability, some Central Valley farmers are talking about tapping robotics to harvest their crops or to streamline part of their operations. A conference held in San Diego late last year addressed how fast robotics may be coming to a farm near you. The event was called RoboUniverse and it featured panels that included reps from Western Growers, Driscoll’s, Tanimura & Antle, and some locals.

According to one published report from tech news watcher Robohub, Hanford dairyman Dino Giacomazzi described how the focus of his long-term plans for sustainability was finding enough labor to milk the cows next week. “Our workforce is either 25 years old or 65 years old. There is no in between right now and that is a problem. The 25-year-old farm hands either don’t like the work or find better work and are gone after payday. I have living animals who need the engagement from good people.”

Brian Antle of T&A described the lengths they are going to meet labor challenges. They built a 600-unit housing facility in Spreckels this year to house temporary agricultural workers with H2A visas. T&A has also invested several millions of dollars in Spanish robotics startup Plant Tape to help it commercialize its automated field planting technology.

Antle said that it was no longer an option to sit on the sidelines and wait for machinery builders to deliver solutions. “We are all losing opportunities to sell quality products because the lettuce is picked late or we are too short staffed to meet our goals. If we cannot get more people, we must find machines; it is not that we have been sitting idle.”

Curtis Garner, formerly of tomato producer The Morning Star Company, said they have been very aggressively investing in agtech with a focus on automation, business intelligence and logistics. “People want food and we have to deliver it without passing costs on.”

“We purposefully moved away from crops that require a lot of labor,” said Stuart Woolf, president and CEO of Woolf Farming & Processing, a Central Valley family farming group. “We now focus on tomatoes, almonds and other crops that can be mechanically harvested.”

Local farmer Harold McClarty, president of HMC Farms, offered the following. “We won’t find a technology that picks fruit the way we do. I have yet to find a robot with an effective, dexterous arm. Instead we are developing certain things that we can use in the packing houses. There are lots of modifications that can be made in the packing houses; they’re a much better and easier place to innovate.”

A report by the robotic intelligence firm Tractica forecasts that shipments of agricultural robots will increase significantly in the years ahead, rising from 32,000 units in 2016 to 594,000 units annually in 2024, by which time the market is expected to reach $74.1 billion in annual revenue.

The conference watched a presentation of a new robotics strawberry harvester. Organizers say that soon consumers will be buying their first autonomously-harvested tomatoes and robotically-tended celery.

With low milk prices Vilsack heads to Mexico

Key milk commodity prices are in the dumpster as of late March affecting the milk checks of local dairymen. While butter is a bright spot, cheese barrels are down around $1.36 compared to $1.61 in December and NFDM milk powder is hovering at 80 cents a pound down from $1 as of January 1. U.S. milk powder exports to Mexico in January totaled 41.9 million pounds, down 4.6 percent from big volumes of a year ago.

To stabilize trade concerns in Mexico, former US ag secretary Tom Vilsack, who now heads up the US Dairy Export Council, traveled south of the border in recent days to reassure our number one dairy customer. Jim Mulhern, President and CEO of the National Milk Producers Federation, and Michael Dykes, president and CEO of the International Dairy Foods Association, joined Vilsack at the meeting.

Vilsack argued the dairy industries in both countries “have benefited from NAFTA. Since 1994, Mexican milk production has increased by 58 percent which has helped meet the ever increasing demand of Mexican consumers and visitors to Mexico while at the same time continuing to provide market opportunities for American producers as well.”

Small processing tomato crop

USDA is predicting California tomato processors will contract for just 11.6 million tons in 2017, the lowest since 2006. Tonnage in 2015 was 15 million. Acreage will drop to 235,000 acres in the Valley, the lowest since 1988. That is 10 percent less than forecasted last August. The drop is due to worldwide surplus of product. Tomato growers are being offered a base price $63 per ton compared to $72.50 last year and $80 in 2015.

Dollar General Store in Armona

Armona is getting a Dollar General store with a 7,500-square-foot building under construction at 10821 14th Ave. in the downtown.

Horse racing on Westside

On April 13 the Fresno County Planning Commission will hear a request to approve a horse racing venue some 13 miles west of Firebaugh. The quarter horse racing facility would feature concession stand and mobile vendors with plans to hold 26 events yearly with 600 guests each. The project is going through the CUP process due to a Fresno county code enforcement action. Applicants are Francisco and Romelia Nunez.

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John Lindt is an independent business reporter. He can be reached at sierra2thesea@gmail.com

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