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AU: As strawberry season ends, are robots on the horizon?

The season of extremely low strawberry prices at the grocery store, is all coming to an end as the season draws to a close this week.

Prices for the 26 million kilogram crop dipped to record lows of 99 cents a punnet below the desired $2 as ideal weather conditions produced an explosion of fruit.

But growers are still saying consumption isn't as high as it should be.

And rising costs mean they are looking for ways to improve efficiency.

President of the Australian Strawberry Growers Association of Queensland Bill Sharpe says some things need to change to beef up strawberry consumption into the future.

"It was like the perfect storm - we had perfect growing conditions, the only thing we didn't have is the population to eat more of them.

"I suppose we need a budget to have more advertising."

While it's been good days for the consumers, it's been dark times for the farmers and their finances.

Mr Sharpe says strawberries are one of the most expensive crops because operations are so labour-intensive and there are lots of workers to pay.

But one big grower is turning things around.

Ray Daniels from Sunray Strawberries, near Caboolture, grows almost two million plants and employs 220 people.

He says it's difficult to set up an efficient farm labour system with backpacker pickers, so he's called on technology for an answer.

"A lot of their motivation is only for a three-month visa, so at the end of three months, we're trying to retrain and get a new workforce again. When we get busy, their three months is up and they move on," Mr Daniels said.

"We started on trying to build a field robot.... We were missing a bit of a fruit with the variables... so we decided we would use our technology to harvest hydroponically- grown strawberries."

Mr Daniels has been working on the concept for four years and says he's making progress sourcing the funding needed to drive it forward.

And it's translating to the wider horticulture sector, with work underway to fund a number of technology-driven projects.

Research Director for the Australian Centre for Field Robotics Salah Sukkarieh says in the next few years, automated systems helping improve farm efficiency will become far more common.

He says farmers will benefit from technology being developed in the defence and mining sectors.


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