It’s easy to ignore system update notifications on our phones. With all of the pressures on growers today—drought, regulations, port closures, supply chains to name a few—the issue of upgrading technology to improve agricultural labor and output is put off as easily as delaying updates to newer versions of iOS. However, current conditions have growers stressed to the point where a little mechanization or automation can make the difference between staying in business and fallowing the family farm.

AgTech has the potential to deliver those savings and increase flexibility. However, farmers throughout the Golden State need to take a more proactive approach to cultivate growth for our individual laborers and update the agricultural system to ensure California’s agricultural longevity and economic well-being.

The recent investment of $65.1 million by the U.S. Economic Development Administration’s Build Back Better Regional Challenge to build the F3 - Fresno-Merced Future of Food initiative will put into practice the foundational transition principles to upskill our region’s agricultural workforce and build new agrifood technologies that will expand opportunities for ag-skilled laborers and farms of all sizes. Growers and employees will want to work with researchers and industry to elevate AgTech implementation and innovation.

Humans are irreplaceable

The agricultural industry lacks consistent language that acknowledges the skills of the people who work in our fields, orchards, and ranches. The term “farmworker” does not adequately convey the incredible expertise of those who work in food production, processing and packing and who are correspondingly responsible for ensuring grocery stores remain stocked with the produce we take for granted.

AgTech offers our industry an opportunity to move beyond our outdated operating system and upgrade our human-computer interactions to provide safe, flexible, and environment-specific hardware (machinery to support) and software (systems to support) to a skilled workforce, our employees, that connects, decides, and uses their own unique skills and experiences to expedite production.

Agriculture has made advances in processing and packing to improve efficiency, but in the field, more could be done to use the three human components that have been irreplaceable: the mind, eye, and hand.

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There are several areas ripe for assisting employees, and they are the most labor intensive and hardest to replace: blossom thinning, pruning and small fruit removals. Research at the University of California, Merced’s AgAID Institute funded by USDA is using the agricultural knowledge of tree-trimming laborers to inform artificial intelligence models and eventually the robotic systems to cut the right stems for optimal growth. These small-scale, singular interventions can make a tedious, costly pass through a field more efficient.

Yes, some positions will be lost. Those tasks—not the people—will be replaced through humans in-the-loop approach to AI, where people help computers make decisions. AgTech jobs reduce the most painful and dangerous activities, and tech can do things humans just cannot, like augmented computer vision that looks for diseases in fruits. But picking ripe fruit and gentle handling in a basket needs people.

AgTech offers our industry an opportunity to diversify our workforce and create lucrative career paths for thousands of students with degrees in computer science and engineering or cognitive and information sciences. Thanks to recent investments by the California Department of Food and Agriculture, UC Merced is working with regional partners and community colleges to build the Fresno-Merced Future of Food Innovation Initiative that will create new career pathways in the digital transformation of agriculture.

The future of ag is in AgTech

AgTech is about promoting safety, efficiency, and health for our farms and our employees.

Instead of crop dusters, drone pilots can track and support plant health. Instead of hauling fruits down an aisle, robots can carry heavy loads to the truck. Instead of trimming vines, human-in-the-loop AI systems can support accurate and precise pruning cuts.

Hands-on fieldwork in the agriculture industry is not going anywhere, but it is due for an upgrade to make the whole industry operate with more efficiency and to support the state’s growing economy, specifically in these two key areas of farm labor and AgTech.

Ian LeMay is the president of the California Fresh Fruit Association, one of the state’s oldest agricultural trade associations, representing growers, shippers and marketers of fresh grapes and deciduous tree fruits. 

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