From farm to fork, thanks to… AI and robots?

Much of the western United States has faced scorching temperatures over the past week, with parts of California hitting over 110 degrees Fahrenheit. This state is suffering from a years-long drought and some residents are only allowed to water their gardens and lawns one day a week.

Texas, Nevada and New Mexico are also experiencing severe droughts, according to the US Department of Agriculture. Thus, farmers need to pay particular attention to how they use valuable resources like water.

Marketplace’s Kimberly Adams spoke with Jill McCluskey, professor of sustainability at Washington State University School of Economics, about how smart technology in agriculture can help. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Jill McCluskey: It seems that farmers and growers are almost turning into artificial intelligence engineers. They are using smart crop monitoring and drones, satellites and GPS to become more efficient and reduce costs.

Kimberly Adams: What are some of the industry issues or concerns that are really driving innovation in agricultural technology right now?

Jill McCluskey (Courtesy Washington State University)

McCluskey: I would say that the two biggest concerns for agriculture are the availability of labor and the availability of water. Artificial intelligence, robotics and machine learning can help solve both of these problems. And as we have more robotic harvesting, for example, and autonomous agricultural machinery, we can use less labor. And it’s also probably good for the workers, because it reduces the need for them to engage in some menial and dangerous work.

Adam: What does an agricultural robot look like?

McCluskey: It depends on the harvest. So for lettuce, for example, there may be wheels on both sides that cross the row of lettuce and can harvest. But for apples, it could have lifting platform which can help to harvest apples. It’s just different for every culture, they would be different.

Adam: How much agricultural work can be automated at this stage?

McCluskey: Much of it can be automated. If you think of [it], we have autonomous machines that are connected to sensor data and GPS data. And so you can imagine a driverless combine for harvesting. The hardest part in terms of harvesting is the delicate crops that are labor intensive. So, an example is the raspberry. So if you think about it, a raspberry is very delicate. It’s really hard for a robot to pick it without damaging the fruit.

Adam: Is there a technology in development to solve this problem?

McCluskey: They are currently working on it. I know for some products they use vacuums to pick up the fruit instead of pinching it like a finger would. In fact, they suck the fruit from the bush.

Adam: There is, of course, this bad drought that is happening in the West this year. And water problems are just an ongoing problem in many parts of this country. How does the technology work to address the water shortages that many farmers experience?

McCluskey: Connected smart sensors and satellites and drones can provide data on the level of moisture in the ground. And so the water can be applied more efficiently. In the past, in the West, we often only had the irrigation of fields. And so the water is not used efficiently. And agriculture uses a lot of water. And as water becomes scarce, we need to use it optimally.

Adam: How affordable are some of these new technologies for farmers?

McCluskey: Affordability is always an issue. But as we continue to develop cheaper versions of it, I expect it will gain more widespread adoption. And often berry growers and those types of farmers tend to be smaller than, say, a huge wheat farm or a huge soybean farm in the Midwest. Thus, farmers with huge fields have been able to invest in very expensive agricultural machinery, but smallholders cannot. So that’s a problem; it should get cheaper over time.

Adam: Already, large agricultural companies have a big advantage over small farms. How does the fact that they can invest in these technologies and that small farms cannot affect this dynamic in the future?

McCluskey: This definitely gives large farms an advantage. And small farms — they would probably be more likely to produce organic crops and other crops that have more added value. And they could specialize in these types of crops to survive. But I think as labor gets more expensive, and robotic technology is also expensive, it will be harder for small farms to compete.

Adam: Labor shortages in the agricultural sector have been a problem for some time. And I wonder how that affects the urgency of this push toward automation.

McCluskey: I think it definitely affected the urgency. So as labor gets more expensive, we get closer to robotics which is basically support technology, so it’s more expensive. But as the price of labor reaches this supporting technology, it might actually be cheaper to invest in robotics for harvesting. And at the same time, I think it becomes a priority for research and development as labor becomes more expensive.

Adam: So with all this new technology, what happens to the workers who are left behind?

McCluskey: I think in the future there will be less need for agricultural workers – the traditional work they did harvesting crops, picking crops. So hopefully some of these people will be trained to operate some of the machines. They would be trained to do more satisfying and socially sustainable work.

Adam: How important is sustainability in the development of all these technologies in agriculture?

McCluskey: I think sustainability is really what drives the use of technology in agriculture. So the use of technology will help producers to be more sustainable in their use of water, which is such a difficult issue that we face as a society, and will also be sustainable in terms of workers so that they need fewer workers to do the really difficult and dangerous tasks.

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