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"We have to think about things that technology companies cannot help us with because we haven't overcome them"

How meeting technology halfway can improve the production of fruit and vegetables

A technology expert at a leading fresh produce company is encouraging fresh produce companies to do more to meet tech companies halfway in solving problems and creating innovations to improve efficiency.

Jesse Reader, Costa's Commercial Manager – AgTech & Innovation, told the recent BerryQuest Conference on the Gold Coast that growers should be thinking about moving from conventional towards analytical and pair critical thinking with emerging tech and that will be a massive step towards producing high-quality fruit and vegetables.

"You need to think about the technology or problems that you are assessing and your needs - are you doing all that you can do to bridge that gap?" Mr Reader asked. "We need to be looking a fair way out the front window, and I mean probably more than ten years ahead. For example, what does a piece of fruit need to look like for a robot to harvest it? I have been interested in hearing from some robotics companies talking about the fact that we need to think about growing varieties or plants that present differently. That's them pleading to the growers; could you change what you are doing so that I can get to market quicker, and in turn solve your problem quicker? This could help systems perform tasks like scouting, maturity, presenting the fruit for vision systems, counting and forecasting. So the whole of what can we do to meet tech halfway is about building capability in-house and slowly build the conversation about the capability for when things come."

He has urged fresh produce companies to start discussions sooner rather than later with service providers, so that solutions can come quicker, and that they understand the problems and the needs - rather than sitting and waiting and finding that the solutions are not suitable because they are not designed correctly. But also, no robotics and innovations will progress efficiently and swiftly without enough investment.

"We often think that the money is flowing, the tech companies are out there multiplying, the solutions are on the way - it is all good, right? Well, no, that's not quite the case," he said. "Have you heard people in the industry, when thinking about technology, say things like: 'it's no good, they just don't understand our system', 'it doesn't work like that here', 'we grow differently', 'it's so slow', 'it doesn't do all the things I want it to do' or 'the problem is that it (the machine) can only do half the job'. The last one is my favourite because you talk to people that can't find enough labour and that it's too expensive, then they get their nose out of joint because it can only do half the crop. I don't understand. These are some of the problems we currently have and how we look at technology."

Datasets are one key component of becoming technology ready, according to Mr Reader, who says if companies are not collecting robust, meaningful datasets then it becomes challenging on many fronts. Until companies have deep datasets, there is quite a bit of technology on the market that they cannot currently use. For example, with crop forecasting, historical details such as yields and fruit size will allow companies to utilise some of the technological tools that are being created in a meaningful way.

"With the current challenges my mind always goes to harvesting, but this applies to several different things, such as assessing the crop, counting for yield," Mr Reader said. "We have to remove variability, we have to think about all those things that at the moment technology companies cannot help us with because we haven't overcome them. They are trying to do things like control light, put a box over, and actively illuminate or access it from the other side. But from what I can see, we are only making small inroads into this big problem. Even with evening out maturity; the more it is consistent, the easier it is to come through and take the discretion out of it. Also, think about your production system and architecture; is it optimised for yields or pack-outs? So the focus switched to quality. Will we get to the point where we optimise for accessibility for technology and harvest platforms and robotics?"

He added the conversation about meeting technology halfway also has to include connectivity, whether it is the issue of the remoteness of farms and logistically getting service and maintenance in the field, or machine-to-machine communication where automation, software and robots talk to each other to solve a task.

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