This post is part of our Future of Agriculture series which interviews the leading founders and executives who are on the front lines of the industry to get a better understanding of what problems the industry is facing, what trends are taking place, and what the future looks like.
The following is an interview we recently had with Gary Wishnatzki, Co-Founder of Harvest CROO Robotics and Owner of Wish Farms.
1. What’s the history of Harvest CROO Robotics? Where and how did you begin?
GW: Harvest CROO Robotics is a highly collaborative enterprise that was founded in 2013 by robotic engineer, Robert Pitzer and I, strawberry grower, Gary Wishnatzki. It has brought together growers, investors, and suppliers to achieve their initial goal of development of an autonomous robotic strawberry picker. Nearly $1 billion is spent annually, in the U.S. to harvest strawberries. That is the initial target market. The company is currently testing their Alpha unit. Harvest CROO’s business model is Robotics as a Service (RaaS) and their financial model is founded on saving growers money and providing a platform for value-added services. Over 2/3’s of the U.S. strawberry industry has invested money in this project.
2. What specific problem does Harvest CROO Robotics solve? How do you solve it?
GW: In recent years, the strawberry industry, as well as others in the specialty crop sector, have been facing serious labor shortages. The rising cost of labor is a secondary problem. Many fear that an impending crisis is at hand. Innovation can play a key role in solving this problem.
Strawberries, unlike most other fruits, do not ripen after being picked. They also do not ripen all at one time. In Florida and California, strawberries normally require being picked every 3 to 4 days. If they are not picked on time, fruit can become overripe and unmarketable. In Florida, the harvest season lasts about 5 months and fields are picked approximately 40 times. In California the season lasts even longer, requiring more passes over a field. The importance of picking strawberries on a strict harvest schedule, makes having a dependable way to do so of prime concern to growers. In recent seasons, farms have had to abandon acreage for lack of labor. Labor shortages have cost growers many millions of dollars in lost opportunities. Having to walk away from a crop, after it is made is very painful experience for growers.
Rising costs have been eroding the competitiveness of Florida strawberries and squeezing growers’ profit margins over the years. According to a University of Florida economic study, the total cost of producing strawberries in Florida had risen 30% over a 5 year period, ending in 2015.
It should be noted that primary reason for the shrinking supply of farm labor is simple demographics. The majority of farmworkers come from other countries, particularly Mexico.
Throughout the history of the United States, the jobs that Americans do not want to do have been filled by newly arrived immigrants. It is only the newcomers that are willing to do the hard jobs. Understandably, most workers eventually move into other occupations that are not as tedious. Furthermore, most harvesting jobs are not conducive to older people. Workers certainly are looking for a better life for their children and it is rare that the second generation stays on the farm. For years, American farms have depended on the newly arrived immigrants. Today growers are turning to the expensive U.S. guest worker program, H2A, because the people are no longer coming in the numbers that they once did. Here is why; in the 1960’s the fertility rate in Mexico was 6.7. People were coming here because there were no opportunities at home. Twenty years ago it had dropped to 2.9. That shrinking birthrate mirrors the declining farm labor force we have seen over the last 10 years. Today, our 20-year-old workers are represented by the 2.9% fertility rate of 1997. What should really concern growers is that the current fertility rate in Mexico is estimated to be at 2.1. That is a preview of what the next 20 years looks like. It is easy to extrapolate that the trend of a shrinking and aging labor force is going to continue, based on these demographics. The fact is there are many more opportunities for workers to stay in Mexico. They simply are not coming anymore. The Pew Research Center publish a paper in 2015 that concluded there are more people going back to Mexico than are coming to the U.S. The group of workers that we have is shrinking, aging, and becoming less productive.
3. What’s the future of agriculture?
Prediction #1: Human farm labor costs will continue to rise at rate higher than the general economy, as the labor force continues to age and shrink.
Prediction #2: In the next 15 years, Mexico will become a net importer of labor.
Prediction #3: Specialty crops will adopt robotics and they will become much more efficient in the process. Harvesting crops with robotics will facilitate the ability to add many other systems to the platforms. Some examples are robotic pruning, precision agriculture techniques to reduce the use of pesticides, and the creation of robust forecasting models to help the marketing of crops.
4. What are the top 3 technology trends you’re seeing in agriculture?
Trend #1: Aerial spectroscopy to map large-scale crops has been a popular investment play. While this is useful in grain crops, the same benefits don’t always transfer to specialty crops.
Trend #2: A movement towards factory farming closer to supermarket distribution centers has gained some attention. This sounds good in theory, but I believe that there will be some unforeseen challenges in growing multiple crops in the same building and matching supply with demand.
Trend #3: Robotics is the real revolution. There is a great need to replace the shrinking labor force. It is also clear that this is where the tangible money is. This is a readymade market that is screaming for solutions.
5. Why is the agriculture industry ripe for disruption?
GW: Agriculture is ripe for disruption in the specialty crop sector. While large Midwestern farms have been automated for many years, smaller, higher value crops have been left behind. They generally require selective harvesting that cannot be done without robust processors. We are at a point in history where there is a tremendous need because of the shrinking labor force and a time when processing speeds and costs are making these innovations possible. The future for having healthy food available at affordable prices looks bright because of innovation.
About Gary Wishnatzki
Gary Wishnatzki has over 44 years of experience in the produce industry and is the 3rd generation owner of Plant City Florida based Wish Farms, a berry grower/shipper.
Most recently he has co-founded a start-up robotic company, Harvest CROO Robotics. The mission is to solve the problem of labor shortages through automation. The first project is to build a robotic strawberry picker.
Over the last decade Wish Farms has had several innovations. They include inventing a patented traceability system, How’s My Picking™, developing a bloom count model to forecast strawberry production and becoming a leader in the Southeast region for processed strawberry production.
Gary oversees the businesses under their core values: Quality, Integrity and Responsiveness.