Australia: When will robots be picking fruit?

As the Australian Government’s skills summit approaches, the UK agriculture department has published an expert report on the potential to automate and transform labor productivity in the horticulture industry.

In 2019-2020, Australia’s horticulture industry - comprising fruit, vegetables, nuts, flowers, turf, and nursery products - exceeded $15 billion in production value, and exports were over $3.1 billion. Yet, with an estimated shortfall of 25,000 or more seasonal workers, produce in some areas is withering before it can be picked, and crops are dying before they can be harvested. The UK horticulture industry is also facing a labor crisis, with COVID compounded with labor from Eastern Europe drying up post-Brexit.

The challenges of automating horticulture are many. First, each horticultural crop grown has its own unique husbandry, harvesting, and handling needs. Growing strawberries and other ground crops is a very different exercise from growing tree-based fruit. Horticultural crops also have distinct growing seasons, and seasonal workers are employed at key times in different cycles. As a result, horticulture is a collection of unique sub-sectors with broad and diverse needs. Where other industry sectors have successfully automated, they have done so by removing variation and standardizing components. However, as the UK report points out, variation is inherent in horticulture.

Second, infrastructure and horticultural practices - even the plant varieties themselves - have been optimized for human workers. The UK report stresses that there would need to be broader industry changes in what we grow and how we grow it to optimize the industry for automation and robotics.

Third, horticultural farms tend to be small family-run operations: in 2019-2020, there were over 2,850 horticulture farms in Victoria alone. Automation is capital intensive and will stain the financing capacity of many current producers.

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