US (FL): Will robot pickers save the strawberry industry?

Gary Wishnatzki, third-generation family owner of Plant City-based Wish Farms, isn't comfortable leaving his industry's future in someone else's hands.

So Wishnatzki, working with engineer Bob Pitzer, created the company Harvest CROO Robotics in 2013 to develop an automated strawberry picker that's expected to make its debut next winter. It will be five years or more, he said, before automated harvesters make a significant impact on the industry.

"If we don't automate American agriculture and these specialty crops like strawberries — they're either going to be very expensive or non-existent," Wishnatzki said. "Within the next 10 years, it could happen."

That view is echoed by Kenneth Parker, executive director of the Florida Strawberry Growers Association.

"Gary is such a forward thinker and visionary and has invested a lot of money into robotics," Parker said. "He's really on the right track."

Robots can work longer hours and at night when the temperature is cooler, which is "better for the integrity of fruit," Parker said.

"There can be a lot of real advantages to robotic harvesting and there's a great need for it. The labor pool is shrinking. I don't think any of us can hide from that."

Meantime, Wishnatzki is seeking outside support for innovation and relief from labor costs, in part through his testimony in Washington last month with a panel of specialty-crop farmers before the U.S. House Agriculture Committee.

Read more at the Tampa Bay Times

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