With labor shortages leading to difficulties as well as cost increases for growers, many are turning to technology to assist them in production. The use of robotics in the lettuce industry is one example where growers have turned to machinery for both harvesting as well as packing produce. Taylor Farms, lettuce producer in California, utilizes robots in harvesting their Romaine and baby leaf lettuce. They also function in numerous other capacities in their operations.
"The development and use of robotics in the California lettuce industry is currently in a rapidly evolving state," said Ted Taylor, of Taylor Farms. "Unprecedented labor shortages, coupled with growing demand for fresh produce, have required growers and harvesters to prioritize robotic and automation initiatives. Capital has begun to flow into the category, with many folks making significant progress with robotic thinning, weeding, spraying and harvesting platforms. Yet there is much work to be done. Approximately 95% of Taylor Farms’ romaine volume is harvested with automated harvesters today. Baby leaf is also heavily automated. Other crop specific harvesters are in commercial trials or development."
Harvesting and processing the focus areas
With automation requiring significant capital expenditure, companies carefully assess where and how to best utilize such technology. For Taylor Farms, it was the clearing of bottlenecks, as well as improving opportunities for employees, both in terms of safety as well as career advancement, that were given consideration when deciding where to prioritize investments into automation.
"Obviously significant machinery is required to grow, harvest and process lettuce," noted Taylor.
"Two areas of priority for Taylor Farms are the following:
Taylor Farms’ has invested heavily in automating the romaine harvest function. Harvesting, one of the more difficult in-field jobs to perform, was a natural area of focus for us. Over the last 8 years, we have designed and built advanced machinery to optimize harvest efficiency and drive improved ergonomics for employees. This has truly been a win-win. We have been able to offer better jobs to our field employees, all while driving bottom line performance. We will continue to aggressively pursue automated harvesting functions for all our core products."
"In our processing facilities, we have focused our automation and robotic efforts around case packing and palletizing," he continued. "Historically, these areas have been bottlenecks in our manufacturing process. With new robotic arms deployed, throughput in these two areas has nearly doubled, unlocking significant capacity. These automation efforts have also created opportunities for higher skilled positions, which has allowed us another path for employee growth and retention. We will continue to prioritize bottleneck areas with robotic and automated solutions, and provide the necessary training for our employees to become more skilled."
There have been significant production gains that Taylor Farms has observed by using the robotics. With the automation, they have seen a doubling in key areas. "Robotics have unlocked significant capacity, both in the field and in the processing plant," Taylor said. "In-field productivity with the automated harvesters has more than doubled per man hour. Also, robotic solutions in case packing and palletizing have nearly doubled the capacity compared to hand packing and palletizing."
Inevitable progress for technology advancements
The use of robotics in the lettuce industry is just one example of where technology has changed farming practices. Taylor observes that technology has made a presence in almost every aspect of the agricultural industry, as well as across a spectrum of products. He sees the use advancement and use of robotics and other technologies as critical for the future of the industry.
"Technology will not only continue to advance within the lettuce industry, but all industries related to agriculture," Taylor said. "Technology will affect every existing function both in the field and within the processing plant. We’ll only see continued advancements within all parts of agriculture – seeds, harvesting, packaging, labor etc. Continued adoption of the right technology will be critical to the future of the industry."