"Last summer, the Four Growers harvest robot reached the point where it operates as quickly as a human. With such speeds, the business model for growers becomes viable, and that's when you can have a conversation," says Nick Boelen. Since January 1, he has been working at the American robot developer, which has entered the market with their snack tomato harvest robot. Nick will set up sales as the Sales Director.
"Due to labor market tightness, rising wages, and employee turnover, the harvesting costs per tomato are much higher than they were before. In snack tomatoes, we currently see a trend where Dutch companies are moving their cultivation to Morocco or Tunisia or from Canada to Mexico. At the same time, there is a demand for a locally grown product, a premium snack tomato. Automation can make local cultivation more attractive," Nick explains. Lowering the harvesting costs per tomato is crucial.
Four Growers is strongly emphasizing the speed of the machine. "A faster robot simply means that more tomatoes are harvested for the same money." Therefore, much attention has been given to the machine's self-learning ability, powered by patented software. "When the first robots entered the greenhouses, maybe 1 tomato was harvested every 3 to 4 seconds. Now that harvest speed has been shortened to 1 tomato per second. The difference is mainly in accuracy, and the speed of harvesting itself, and the improvement is due to continuous data collection. The robot improves based on experiences in the greenhouse, reducing the harvesting costs per product."
Since the robot matched the speed of a human worker, Four Growers is taking it to the market. This is done through rental or sale." The robot works and is operating in the greenhouses." The first models have already been sold and delivered, with additional units slated for delivery in the second part of this year. At the moment, the robot is in operation in the Netherlands at Syngenta and in Canada at NatureFresh. It's now Nick's responsibility to expand further.
Initially, the focus is on Leamington and the Netherlands: countries where labor costs are high, labor availability is low, and there is demand for locally grown products. It's also essential for the company to provide good after-sales service and support in these regions. "But we see that the demand for the robot also comes from other regions: from Australia, for example. And even requests are coming from countries with lower salaries but rising rapidly."
Last year, Four Growers mentioned making their harvesting solution suitable for cucumber cultivation. While the snack tomato version uses a sophisticated tomato suction device to pick the fruits of the cluster without damaging them, the cucumber variant is equipped with a three-fingered gripper arm and a cutting mechanism. "The technological concept has been approved, and now we let AI do the work in the greenhouses. Here too, we expect a steep learning curve, with the robot becoming faster and more precise."
"Ultimately, the platform is relatively easy to adapt," Nick says about the further development. "Snack cucumbers are similar to regular cucumbers, for example. The question is mainly in which market there is high demand and how long it takes us to adapt the robot for it."
The same applies to the further expansion of robot activities. "Everything the robot harvests is weighed, counted, and recorded. From that data, a 'yield map' is created, showing which plant is doing well and which is not. It's the first step toward a quality control system," Nick explains. "Because you work with cameras in the crop, you can also capture what is happening higher in the plant: the number of flowers, clusters, or unripe tomatoes. This takes us towards forecasting. Ultimately, this can also be expanded to measuring leaf area, leaf color, or even detecting insects. We are developing in these directions too."
It is clear that a lot is happening in the sector – and that is precisely why Nick was drawn to it and decided to leave his previous profession. "A lot is happening. Four Growers is a young and relatively small company, but there's a lot going on, and developments are happening rapidly. That makes it a very interesting company to be a part of."