Environ. Horticulture, Pears, Cherries, and Viticulture
University of California
Environ. Horticulture, Pears, Cherries, and Viticulture

A Thought on the Integration of Automation in Berries

Just started reading the book Machine Platform Crowd which is about the second phase of this machine age.

Great read, but what is striking is the summary of electrification and its initial slow uptake in factories. Why did something so obviously superior to coal fired steam power not get adopted the instant it was introduced?

There were actually a number of reasons. The adoption of electricity in factories was impeded by manufacturers who were reluctant leave to behind what they already were familiar with and knew well, and at the time electricity was only a marginally superior to coal anyway.

The real gains from electrification were to be made only when some manufacturers stopped just replacing steam engines with electric motors and redesigned the entire system - by placing electric motors on the conveyor belts, assembly lines and overhead cranes -  and took full advantage of the new technology.  The full potential of electricity now realized brought to bear huge advantages in price of production and flexibility, saturating the market with goods and hammering less able competition into the ground.

A lucid reading of the above should make us realize in the berry industry that in fact we are in a similar dilemma with our fitful advance on integrating automation into our agriculture. Really profitable automation simply doesn't mean replacing people with machines in the same fields as before.  If we learn our lesson well from the transition to electricity from steam, we probably have to look at changing a lot about the production system itself.


Posted on Thursday, January 18, 2018 at 8:19 AM


You always have a great perspective on the berry industry and I greatly appreciate your commitment in all sectors.  
Keep posting comments like these. we all need to be looking outside the box to keep the industry adapting to be better year after year.

Posted by Dennis Devitt on January 19, 2018 at 6:51 AM

Thanks Dennis, really appreciate the feedback! I'm moving deeper into the book now, and it's a little unnerving to know that machines very likely will move beyond just doing repetitive tasks like gathering fruit, but also do functions including judgement which we all think is exclusively the purview of humans. Many examples of machines besting the experts in medical diagnostics, predicting wine quality, identifying economic trends and so on. Brave new world.

Posted by Mark Bolda on January 19, 2018 at 7:23 AM

When the systems are practical farmers will adopt them, even if it means completely rethinking everything we currently believe is fundamental and indispensable to farming strawberries.  
Farmers embrace change when the benefits are obvious. A clear example is the REA. The Rural Electrification Act brought electricity to rural America. It brought electric lighting but it also made large scale irrigated agriculture possible.  
Irrigated agriculture has been around for more than a thousand years in the American Southwest. In the middle east and northern Africa it has been practiced for thousands of years more than that. That innovation had proven its' value long ago. But when electricity was brought to the farms, windmills were replaced by pumps driven by electric motors. They provided dependable supplies of water and that made possible using motors with much more horsepower than the windmill and that could deliver ten times the water previously possible. The ground could be irrigated to make crops without relying on rain. Now, wells deliver one thousand times what the old windmill driven pumps could.

Posted by Thom Flewell on January 19, 2018 at 7:30 AM

We had the same discussion in the processing peach industry. I even gave a power point arguing that we need to stop trying to come up with better harvesting machines and look at re-designing the whole orchard first. The shipping fruit industries have re-designed orchards (you can find a demonstration at UC's Kearney Ag Center) to drastically reduce labor.

Posted by Maxwell V. Norton on January 19, 2018 at 9:16 AM

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