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California spinach harvest:

New tech promises farmers reduced labor costs

A new tool to more efficiently harvest the Monterey County's $143 million spinach crop might bring relief for farmers who have been struggling to find enough workers .

The spinach guard, developed by Harvest Moon Automations Inc., looks like nothing so much as a series of piano keys, splayed mere inches above the ground. It attaches to the front of a harvester, sticking just a few feet out in front of the machine.

When the tiny cameras positioned above the keys sense irregularities in the spinach -- such as downy mildew, bird droppings, or something else you wouldn't want showing up in your salad -- the piano keys depress that patch of spinach, pushing it below the reach of the bandsaw or laser that slices through the stems of spinach leaves.

Last year spinach was the tenth-highest grossing crop in the county, valued at $143,376,000 by the 2018 Monterey County Agricultural Commissioner's Crop Report. More than 16,000 acres were dedicated to cultivating spinach.

With a dwindling farmworker labor market, Harvest Moon Automations co-founders Stephen Jens and Tom Garnett hope to appeal to farmers who find themselves short on laborers. Also, an estimated half of California farmworkers are undocumented and the average age of documented farmworkers is dramatically increasing. As such, the area is in need of an injection of younger, documented laborers.

Farmers have also seen labor shortages over past years due a deficiency in H-2A programs, which allow people from certain countries to enter the U.S. for farm work.

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