Strawberry picking robots aim to save California growers

California’s $2 billion strawberry industry accounts for 91% of the U.S. crop, but climate change, tightening chemical regulations, and labor struggles are presenting new challenges for the industry and making business tough on farmers. LA Times business reporter Sam Dean said that strawberry farmers are facing unprecedented challenges.

“Labor is getting more expensive. Workers now have more rights. Minimum wages are going up,” he explained. “So, workers have more power in the fields to demand higher wages. Also, the workforce itself is aging. And also, you know, water rights are getting complicated. We’re in a drought. Water is difficult to come by in general.”

One solution to the labor issue is little robots that can pick tabletop strawberries. “This Colorado Company called Tortuga AgTech is making these robots,” Dean said. “They’re strawberry robots that can, in certain circumstances, pick strawberries. They have machine vision so they can identify red versus unripe strawberries. They have little snippers to pick the strawberries off the plants. And they can operate all day, in all weather conditions, day or night.” 

The robots are specifically designed for tabletop strawberries, which are hydroponically grown on raised beds and require fewer pesticides. Dean talked about the efficiency of the robots’ work compared to a human picker.

“They are as daily productive as humans, is what the company is saying,” he said. “Both the company and the growers are saying that over the course of the day, [robots] end up picking as many strawberries as a person would in a normal human shift because they can work longer hours. Right now, they’re still a little slower, but their accuracy is at 95%.”

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