As the US economy attempts to rebound and the stockmarket flounders closer to the year high, agriculture is left to ponder the un-answered questions of 2020.
The past year has been rife with troubling stories. How can we address already scarce labor, compounded by travel restrictions and border closures? What does the future of the H2A Visa program mean for specialty crops?
Can we prevent rampant worker infection with inadequate infrastructure to identify, prevent, or even mitigate exposure?
How can we stop unharvested crops from rotting in the field?
To cast blame ignores the ultimate reality and responsibility of our circumstance. We can pay growers more to produce the delicious products we love, or we can do nothing and be left wondering what happened after the fact.
The Washington Apple market is taking action... Apple exports are being refocused on Canada where consumers are willing to pay top dollar for American organics compared to other foreign markets.
Washington state has been a hotbed of attention for BWR. Our CEO Ben Alfi recently traveled to WA and met with 7 major growers to better understand their challenges in 2020.
One of the most striking realizations is the 5 year return on investment for 1 acre of honeycrisp apples in Washington state.
A cost model from Washington State University shows that barring unforeseen circumstances, a grower can barely break even. Growers we spoke to said that their costs for apples were averaging 55% higher in the last 5 years.
The largest diversified orchards can likely shoulder the increased labor cost for a time, but to a smaller grower? uncertainty could mean bankruptcy.
Bre Elsey, Washington State Farm Bureau: “farmers are worried that the Court could award three years of retroactive overtime pay. That would leave many of them "kind of looking bankruptcy straight in the eyes right now," (O'Neill, 2020)
Here is a somber exercise:
Type "COVID19 Agriculture" into Google and click on the news tab. There's no end to the stories pitting the plight of the worker and grower at odds. This over simplification does nothing to address the real challenges and ignores all of the opportunity. There's an old stoic parable that suggests if you're going to complain about circumstance, you would do you well to offer a solution first.
One grower we spoke with had invested significant amounts in protection for their workers. Plexiglass barriers, increased sanitation stations, reduced seating in transportation, and decreased beds in living spaces. In fact, when asked about the incentive benefits of our automated systems it wasn't the increased efficiency that the growers cared most about.
It was worker safety.
Even taking the most cynical perspective, nobody wants a driver exposed to twelve plus hours of chemical spray given a safer alternative.
We provide just the sort system that reduces the risk of injury and provides a COVID19 resilient solution. (More on this in our January blog)
There's real hope in automated solutions for harvesting. Two companies recently duked it out in a video from Good Fruit Grower magazine.
A pair of ingenious machines driving slowly down a row of Apple's carefully and methodically snatching fruit with an electrical whirring of telescopic arms, and the almost musical notes of a vacuum pump.
At scale harvesting would be quite the spectacle but, more importantly, it offers both the protection against exposure while maintaining the necessary speed for harvest.
Harvesting isn't the only place that automation is shining.
In the air:
Late February and March was the height of the uncertainty and chaos surrounding COVID19. The workers needed to drive blowers for pollination wouldn't be allowed to enter the country.
Pollination drones flew three sorties over a three week period, dropping little clouds of pollen over each tree. The Central & Northern Arava-Tamar research and development institute noted comparable and positive evidence of pollination using the drone alternative with far less labor. A first in the world. Strands from each flower were measured under a microscope with clear signs of pollen.
Positive yield results are expected in the next weeks after harvest.
Facing another year with no confirmed vaccine and tightened restrictions is not an easy task for Agriculture. The chaos of uncertainty is pushing a strained system to the brink. But along with chaos comes unbridled potential. 2021 could be the year of autonomy in agriculture for those that can spot how much opportunity there really is.
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O'Neill, Eilis. “Washington Farmworkers Ask State Supreme Court For Overtime Pay.” NPR, NPR, 2 Aug. 2020, www.npr.org/2020/08/02/897211483/washington-farmworkers-ask-state-supreme-court-for-overtime-pay.