Tue. Feb 18th, 2020

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The Age of Robot Farmers

It was a hot February morning at Wish Farms, a large strawberry-growing operation outside Plant City, Florida. Gary Wishnatzki, the proprietor, met me at one of the farm offices. In the high season, Wish Farms picks, chills, and ships some twenty million berries—all handpicked by a seasonal workforce of six hundred and fifty farm laborers.Wishnatzki…

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It was a hot February morning at Wish Farms, a large strawberry-growing operation outside Plant City, Florida. Gary Wishnatzki, the proprietor, met me at one of the farm offices. In the high season, Wish Farms picks, chills, and ships some twenty million berries—all handpicked by a seasonal workforce of six hundred and fifty farm laborers.Wishnatzki is a genial sixty-three-year-old third-generation berry man, who wears a white goatee and speaks softly, with a Southern drawl. His grandfather Harris Wishnatzki was a penniless Russian immigrant who started out peddling fruits and vegetables from a pushcart in New York’s Washington Street Market in 1904. He and a partner established a wholesale business in 1922, and Harris moved to Plant City in 1929, to run it. Gary Wishnatzki is the first in his family to own a farm.He explained that the entire farm has to be picked every three days—or a third every day. Growers want a steady flow of berries to reach the market throughout the season, rather than having a glut of berries arrive all at once, which would cause the price to fall. Up until recently, Wishnatzki has relied on cheap labor to get his berries picked—a fundamental of American agriculture, along with abundant land and water.In recent years, though, seasonal labor has become much more scarce, and more expensive—making it difficult for growers of apples, citrus, berries, lettuce, melons, and other handpicked produce-aisle items to harvest their crops. Years of attempts to crack down on illegal immigration, both at the state and the federal level, partly explain these chronic shortages. In 2011, for example, Georgia enacted a strict immigration law that targeted undocumented workers and their employers. Later that year, the state reportedly lost eleven thousand crop workers. To fill the gap, officials established a program whereby nonviolent offenders nearing the end of their prison terms could do paid farmwork. The program had few takers, and many prisoners and probationers who did try it walked off the job, because the work was so hard. Georgia farmers lost more than a hundred and twenty million dollars.“It’s very expensive,” Wishnatzki said of the process of getting visas for temporary agricultural workers—they are issued under a program called H-2A —because of all the red tape and the cost of housing. (“Expensive” is a relative term: H-2A workers are still among the lowest paid in the country.) “But at least it guarantees that we have workers, so we’re able to plant a crop,” he continued.When Wishnatzki started out in the business, in the mid-seventies, a box of strawberries selling in a supermarket in the Northeast in February cost four times as much as it does now. For the average consumer, “berries in winter were a luxury item back then,” Wishnatzki said. “And that’s where we’re headed again, unless we can solve our labor problems.” He added, “I testified before Congress before last year’s Farm Bill, and I told them, ‘If we don’t solve this with automation, we’re in huge trouble.’ ”The solution, Wishnatzki believes, is to make a robot that can pick strawberries. He and a business partner, Bob Pitzer, have been developing one for the past six years. With the latest iteration of their invention—known around the farm as Berry 5.1—they are getting close.To understand the kind of work that Wishnatzki and his colleagues are trying to automate, I spent some time watching his workers pick strawberries. Crews of strawberry pickers, most of them Mexican-born, had arrived at first light, fanning out over Wish Farms’ six hundred acres of strawberry fields, one of the largest contiguous patches in North America.Picking a strawberry properly, and doing it fast enough to earn a living wage, requires speed, dexterity, and stamina. On a typical plant, only some of the berries will be ripe; the pickers must identify them by working their hands through the thick canopy of leaves with little fruit-seeking movements of their fingers, catching the stem of the ripe berries in the webbing of their fingers, and cupping the fruit. Then, with a wristy twist that prevents bruising around the calyx, they pluck the berry from the vine the way you might pop a frosty can of beer from a six-pack.“Have you been trying to fix this yourself?”It was getting hotter, and the ripe fruit was warming on the bushes, meaning that the workers had to pick each berry extra carefully so as not to bruise its softening shoulders before delicately placing it in the same clear clamshell case that you will buy in the supermarket. Chris Parks, the farm’s manager, who wore a baseball cap with the Wish Farms logo on it, noted that the very sweet berries Wish grows can be especially hard to pick: “Kind of a rule is, the sweeter a berry, the more tender it can be.”Wishnatzki drove us to the middle of his property. He had a big touch screen mounted on the dashboard of his car showing the whole farm; we could track our progress in a blip moving across the screen. In one section, every plant has its own G.P.S. coördinates—a kind of virtual strawberry farm, made of data, that exists in the Microsoft cloud.Stopping the car, Wishnatzki said, “Strawberry fields forever, right?”Absolutely straight rows of strawberry plants ran almost to the horizon, in every direction; there wasn’t a tree for miles. The berries grow in soil encased in black plastic mulch—the landscape of industrial strawberry production is far from the trippy topography of the Beatles song. Under the rows is a network of PVC hoses and drip tape delivering water and fertilizers that cause the plants to produce Wish Farms’ huge, luscious strawberries until the end of April, when all the bushes and the plastic mulch are torn up and thrown away. The very largest of the berries I saw growing were the size of a plum. They were still attached to the plant, lying swollen and red on the dusty plastic, waiting for someone to pick them.The pickers started in the middle of the…

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