Technology is revolutionizing farming, with automation playing a crucial role in meeting the demands of feeding a growing population. Computer technology, data processing and human ingenuity will soon replace and improve certain aspects of human labor with machines.
The Cal Poly Strawberry Center, which operates in close partnership with the California Strawberry Commission, is leading the way in advancing agricultural automation. “Automation in agriculture has become a pivotal focus in the last three years, specifically for strawberries and other specialty crops that produce highly perishable or delicate fruits,” said John Lin, production automation manager for the California Strawberry Commission, which is housed at Cal Poly’s Strawberry Center.
We are embracing automation at Cal Poly because we know that it will enhance human welfare. This is not just about labor shortages or business efficiencies. This is about helping society, and Cal Poly is uniquely positioned to move automation forward.
— Andrew Thulin
Lin said the trifecta of minimum wage and overtime changes and immigration pressures led the California strawberry industry to make investing in automation a priority in 2017.
“Strawberry farmers have a long history of investing in research, innovation, and sustainable farming practices,” said Rick Tomlinson, president of the California Strawberry Commission. “The commission’s partnership with Cal Poly to create the Strawberry Center demonstrates our ongoing commitment to innovation.”
The California Strawberry Commission, which represents more than 400 strawberry growers, shippers and processors in the state, hosted the Strawberry Automation Summit in partnership with Cal Poly in January – making it the first commodityfocused ag tech event of its kind. More than 160 people attended, including members of the industry, students, faculty and automation experts from other industries.
More than $30 million in research and development was presented by some of the leading experts in strawberry production automation. The goal of the event was twofold: to inform strawberry growers of the available technological tools, and to stimulate synergies amongst developers and to help the synergies keep moving forward, Lin said.
Industry representatives such as Dave Murray, vice president of Andrew & Williamson Fresh Produce, and Michael Christensen, director of Americas forecasting at Driscoll’s, shared the stage at the Strawberry Automation Summit with an emerging group of Cal Poly scholars focusing on strawberry production automation. Cal Poly professors from the BioResource and Agricultural Engineering, Computer Science, Electrical Engineering and Agribusiness departments all shared their research findings from collaboration with the Cal Poly Strawberry Center. Students also shared their involvement in advancing automation to improve facets of the industry.
“We are embracing automation at Cal Poly because we know that it will enhance human welfare,” said Andrew Thulin, dean of the College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences. “This is not just about labor shortages or business efficiencies. This is about helping society, and Cal Poly is uniquely positioned to move automation forward.”
Improving the Industry
Picking strawberries – which is still done by hand – is a physically taxing occupation, which can lead to ailments throughout the body. Individuals who harvest strawberries spend a long time in a stooped position, leading to chronic back issues.
Jack Stobaugh, a senior majoring in bioresource and agricultural engineering, is trying to better understand how a person moves their body when picking strawberries. His goals include launching an education program to guide strawberry pickers in efficiency without injury, and to further understand how controlled movement can lead to strawberry pickers sustaining momentum while minimizing fatigue. Stobaugh is using automation to make efficiencies in longstanding practices used in the field.
Stobaugh is in the process of establishing a partnership between Cal Poly’s Human Motion Biomechanics Lab and the California Strawberry Commission to perform advanced analysis, such as force plate data, muscle activity, and kinematics using markers and cameras. He is currently using measurement sensors located along the arms, legs, spine and on the hips to monitor movement. He will travel to farms throughout California to get motion capture data from a wide range of workers in the field.
“My inspiration for working on automation is to keep food affordable and be able to feed a growing population,” Stobaugh said. “Agricultural workers struggle in performing these difficult tasks and my goal is to create a healthier environment so that workers don’t have to deal with chronic pain.”
Cal Poly junior Jack Wells, a bioresource and agricultural engineering major, also presented his work at the technology summit. Wells is working to improve the Lygus vacuum, which is used by more than 80 percent of strawberry growers to remove the invasive bug from strawberry plants.
“I see automation in agriculture as being crucial to the long-term profitability of agriculture, and our ability to sustainably feed a growing population,” Wells said of his involvement.
Lin, who joined the Cal Poly Strawberry Center in September 2016, is a bioengineer by trade and was the lead scientist on the development of a machine that takes the tops off of strawberries prior to processing. He symbolizes the California strawberry industry’s focus on improving the future by automation.
California, where 88 percent of America’s strawberries are grown, is behind in automation compared to other countries because until recently it had plentiful land, water and labor, Lin said. Given the labor-intensive nature to produce strawberries and the $2.3 billion production value, venture capitalists in the technology space are now looking to strawberries as a strategic place to invest.
“The challenge with automating the unstructured non-uniform tasks found in our industry is that there is a high investment required and the cost is not one that a single grower, shipper, or processor can handle on their own,” Lin said. “Growers recognize that and are starting to collaborate and even modify their own growing systems to accommodate new developments and methods of innovation. They are paving the way for entrepreneurs to come in and tackle their needs.”
In order to be successful, entrepreneurs will need to focus on one specific crop because agricultural automation technology is highly customized to specific end users, Lin said. Strawberries are the place to start.
“The partnership between the Cal Poly Strawberry Center and the California Strawberry Commission coalesces both the efforts of the university and the industry to expand the resources available to entrepreneurs. Until now, it has been very difficult for tech experts to break into farming.”
Lin said the partnership represents a “beacon of hope” to agricultural technology and a model for other commodity groups to make the advances needed to sustain future demands on agriculture.
“The Cal Poly Strawberry Center acts as the liaison between the strawberry and technology industries,” Lin said. “We welcome developers to reach out and discover the advances needed for a very high-value specialty crop.”
The bigger picture is what comes next, Lin said. “We see this as technology’s gateway into other areas of crop production,” he said.
The California Strawberry Commission and Cal Poly are committed to the sustainability of the California strawberry industry through applied research and education to address industry needs. With an original investment of $1 million from the California Strawberry Commission in 2014, Cal Poly launched the Cal Poly Strawberry Center. Cal Poly and the California Strawberry Commission recently renewed their commitment, with the California Strawberry Commission pledging additional funding over a five-year period to continue to address industry needs.
The Cal Poly College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences is in the early stages of establishing a Center for Automation to provide a collaborative space for experts across the university to engage directly with industry to conduct applied research involving both faculty and students. The center will foster an open design that is welcome to visiting scholars, industry partners and universities. For more information, contact Russ Kabaker, assistant dean of advancement and external relations, at 805-756-6601 or firstname.lastname@example.org.