The future of agricultural work has arrived in Florida, promising to ease labor shortages and reduce the cost of food. Or so says the team behind Harv, a nickname for the latest model from automation company Harvest CROO Robotics.
Harv is on the cutting edge of a national push to automate the way we gather goods that bruise and squish. Designing a robot with a gentle touch is among the biggest technical obstacles to automating the American farm. Reasonably priced fruits and vegetables are at risk without it, growers say, because of a dwindling pool of workers.
"The labor force keeps shrinking," said Gary Wishnatzki, a third-generation strawberry farmer. "If we don't solve this with automation, fresh fruits and veggies won't be affordable or even available to the average person."
The problem is so pressing that competitors are banding together to fund Harv, which has raised about $9 million from corporate behemoths like Driscoll's and Naturipe Farms, as well as from local farmers.
During a test run last year, Harv gathered 20 percent of strawberries on every plant without mishap. This year's goal: Harvest half of the fruit without crushing or dropping any. The human success rate is closer to 80 percent, making Harv the underdog in this competition. But Harv doesn't need a visa or sleep or sick days.
Besides, about half of the country's 850,000 farmworkers are not in the United States legally, according to 2016 data from the Department of Labor, the most recent available. Agricultural analysts say the labor shortage is already forcing up wages.