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Reducing Labor With Technology

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, December 15, 2006

Here at the Pundit, we’ve dealt several times with the issue of immigration reform, including here and here. The Pundit also made some specific suggestions on what could actually pass in Straight Talk On Immigration. One wild card in this issue is what the industry could actually do in terms of mechanizing harvesting if labor is expensive or unavailable.

At the recent California Valley Grape and Raisin Expo, Dr. Robert Wample, head of Fresno State’s viticulture and enology program, made an announcement of progress on mechanical harvesting for grapes:

The system uses near-infra-red spectroscopy (NIRS) equipment in conjunction with GPS (global positioning systems) to prepare a “quality map” of a vineyard prior to harvest using GIS (Geographic Information Systems).

“The quality map is used to control the mechanical harvester as it moves through the vineyard,” Wample said. “Although there have been efforts elsewhere to determine fruit quality prior to harvest, to the best of my knowledge, no one has ever created the necessary maps and subsequently used them to control a mechanical harvester,” directing it to pick only the desired grapes…

“Given the impending labor issues facing [the grape and wine industry], this could change the need for large quantities of hand labor that was used in the past,” Wample said. “It will be especially useful to those working with wineries attempting to meet the continuing higher expectations of the consumer and remain competitive.”

He said the technology can potentially be used in other crops and is aware of preliminary research regarding the use of NIRS in muskmelon, but not incorporating GPS or GIS. He has received inquiries about the possible use of this technology in strawberries.

“But I think the easiest transfer will be to table grapes,” Wample said.

Whatever the legislative outcome, guest worker programs are always going to be problematic. A focus on technology to reduce labor needs is essential if agriculture is going to thrive in high-labor-cost countries.

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