By Jeremy C. Nagel
In 17 years with Farm Bureau, I’ve seen a lot of different crops harvested, including the notoriously delicate ones that must remain unblemished. Preserving the aesthetic perfection of thin-skinned fruits and vegetables is vital to their eventual sale at the grocery store.
That means they’re largely picked by hand, but for how long? Necessity is the mother of invention and you know darn well it’s only a matter of time before even our most delicate commodities are picked by machines. The inexorable progress of mechanization has been an ag industry constant for…basically forever.
Two separate, recent observations took my curiosity to this same topic, namely the role of mechanization in agriculture and food processing:
FIRST: Assembling a turkey sandwich for lunch the other day, I couldn’t help but admire the artful way each perfectly sliced Oscar Mayer Deli Fresh cold cut is elegantly draped and intertwined with the next in the package. They’re not packed like the cold-cut packages we grew up with, layered so uniformly it was hard to tell the meat was even sliced until you pried the package open.
My first jaded, cynical thought was that this fancy new packaging was an expensive marketing ploy meant to suggest the product was carefully hand-packed by doting grandmas. But c’mon: Think of the scale of American cold-cut production. No way is this the work of human hands.
And sure enough, it doesn’t take much online digging to find convincing evidence that the modern cold-cut-folding machine is nearing perfection: https://tinyurl.com/y29ygnc9
SECOND: I was southbound on M-37 the other weekend marveling at the Fruit Ridge’s new look: tightly-packed rows of miniature trees heavily loaded with millions of plump, maturing apples.
High-density plantings now account for a third of Michigan’s apple acreage. Supported by wire trellises reminiscent of a vineyard, up to 1,000 or more little trees per acre yield two to three times more fruit than conventional orchards filled with widely-spaced, slowly maturing trees.
Harvest workers can be a lot more efficient (no more futzing around with ladders), but there’s a lot more fruit to pick in a shorter harvest window. There’s also more pruning than ever, and more labor involved in training branches onto the trellises.
Add it all up and you wonder: With absolutely no light sparkling on the labor horizon, how will delicate fruits and vegetables in the near future make it to the bin, the packing house or processing line?
For now, apple-harvest mechanization is limited to motorized platforms, but automated systems requiring fewer and fewer human beings are under development and it’s really just a matter of time before viable productions models catch the eye of forward-thinking growers blessed with the financial means to invest in one, then another, and a third…
The earliest commercially-available mechanical fruit harvesting equipment will be inefficient and phenomenally expensive, but look at the annual workforce headaches those early adopters will be putting behind them. Like everything else, they will improve and become more affordable over time.
If that sounds like science fiction, just look at how commonplace robot milkers are becoming on even smaller dairy farms.
Think about your first cell phone or the explosion of solar panels and electric cars. They’re not flying yet, but wait for it!