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Tackling the issue of labour shortages in horticulture:

Developing assisted harvesting

Several spin-off businesses associated with Waikato University are busy tackling the issue of labour shortages in horticulture.

In March, graduates Josh Barnett and Jono Tobias were collecting data from a rig towed behind a tractor through a field of broccoli as part of the on-going development of horticultural 'Assisted Harvesting' devices.

Barnett is the managing director of Axis7 Ltd which is an R&D company with technical expertise in robotics and machine design. He comes from a mechanical engineering background and Tobias from electrical engineering. 

Several years ago Barnett had designed an autonomous asparagus harvester also through Waikato University. That project is now in the hands of Tauranga's Robotics Plus Ltd with $5 million in funding to take it further.

With over five years’ experience working in Agri-robotics, Barnett is back in the field in a scoping study funded by a $30,000 grant from Agricultural and Marketing Research and Development Trust, Agmardt. The aim of the study is to collect data which would help in the development of a device to reduce the number of workers required to harvest broccoli as part of a solution to chronic labour shortages with Kaimai Fresh. Kaimai Fresh grows asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower and cabbages over 225ha near Matamata. While the project is in its early stages further funding support is looking promising, he says. 

Kaimai Fresh owner Matt Carnachan says labour has become a critical problem.

''To find labour we've tried everything, going through Work and Income, finding people in the local area and the RSE scheme, nothing really works. In the past with asparagus we needed a lot of labour but we have now reduced that to a team of 8 to 10. ''Asparagus will fall back to being a niche product. Our focus is now on brassicas and a smaller amount of labour. The issue is a matter of survival for all labour-intensive crops, potatoes, carrots, onions, salad greens, everyone is looking to autonomous harvesters.''

Carnachan says Axis7's philosophy was not trying to make the leap to full automation but to work on a level of 'functional automation' - a harvester which can be towed behind a tractor and can reduce the number of workers needed rather than replace them entirely.

''Full automation becomes far more complex than a 'cut and convey' device that can be towed behind a tractor. There is a balancing act between economics, speed, accuracy and cost.''

Barnett says the goal is to build a machine capable of replacing about 10 labourers in the Matamata operation.

Click here to read the full press release.

For more information:
Tel.: +64 04 472 3795

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