Specialty crop growers anticipate labor costs, which already represent more than half of their production costs, to grow 10-30% over the next three to five years, and are increasingly turning to automation as a solution, according to a new report from the Western Growers Association.

Walt Duflock, vice president of innovation at Western Growers, said in the foreword of the report that the lack of a domestic workforce, combined with the increased cost of foreign employees, has “increased the urgency around automation solutions globally.”

Since 2005, the number of H-2A jobs has increased over 500%, the report noted. H-2A jobs now account for approximately 10-15% of full-time equivalent jobs in crop agriculture.

“Grower respondents that use H-2A to some extent in their operations indicated that the average share of H-2A workers on their farms increased from 43 percent to more than 60 percent between 2020 and 2022," the report said. "This is an increase of more than 15 percent in just two years."

The report added that 70% of participating growers indicated they’re invested in automation in 2022, spending an average of $450,000 to $500,000 each. This is up considerably from last year when the average investment was $100,000 less.

Weeding and harvest assist segments saw the most progress. Duflock said the technology behind harvesting is more difficult to program and perfect than weeding. Weeding robots have reduced chemical usage and some start-ups are experimenting with novel technologies such as lasers that can target and destroy weeds.

“The time it takes to build automation solutions is getting shorter and the costs are getting smaller thanks to overall advances in robotics and non-agriculture fields that benefit ag tech startups, as well as the increasing talent pool that ag tech startups are able to add to their teams,” Duflock said in the report.

Western Growers and partners in Australia, New Zealand and Britain have collaborated to help encourage global startups in the space.  

“The same time underlying technology is getting better, growers are getting smarter about real needs versus wants, and startups are getting better about listening and then fitting the Rubik's cube of the grower needs into their solutions,” Duflock told Agri-Pulse.  

Substantial progress has been made in weeding, the report said. The advancement of artificial intelligence and machine learning activity now can take a new set of images of crops and quickly program the robot for weeding. Duflock shared, for instance, that Carbon Robotics can now go into a new field with a crop they have seen, run their machine over it on a scouting mission on a Tuesday, and by Wednesday or Thursday can be working in that field.

He likened the investment into these technologies as “moneyball for ag labor” as it doesn’t offer that huge a payout but has incremental benefits along the way. “If we know labor is our biggest scarcity, we can’t be wrong about labor,” Duflock said. Start-ups are mostly focused on the outdoor growing environment, with 60% looking solely at outdoor operation, the report said, but interest in the indoor growing environment is expected to rise.

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Automation research and cost share assistance is a top priority for the Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance.

The report also offered a market assessment of the controlled environment agriculture segment, which represents around 6-7% of the total vegetables and fresh-cut herbs market today. “CEA start-ups offer a way out to increase shelf-life, minimize food waste and decrease transportation distances," it said.

The report noted the CEA segment is expected to “grow at double digit rates and contribute approximately 10% to 12% of fresh vegetables and fresh cut herbs in the U.S. market by 2025.”

The report said that “most of the revenue earned by the CEA players will be at the expense of traditional open-field growers,” adding that the “current macroeconomic environment doesn’t bode well for CEA start-ups” with rising interest rates and increasing material costs impacting construction of new facilities.

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