Labor issues force producers to explore technology options

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By Vicky Boyd

As labor availability continues to tighten and costs climb ever higher, growers are increasingly looking to mechanization and automation to offset manpower.

And their challenges haven’t been lost on manufacturers, who are developing self-driving tractors, autonomous sprayers and robotic weeders.

San Joaquin Farm Bureau Second Vice President Jake Samuel, who farms cherries and walnuts with his family near Linden and runs a custom application/harvest business with his brothers, is one of those producers exploring technology to address labor issues.

“My brothers and I have definitely talked about it,” Samuel said. “The tricky part is figuring out how it would fit into our operation. What I mean by that is we do a lot of custom work whether it be spraying or harvesting.”

On the spray side, he said they have looked at GUSS, short for Global Unmanned Spray System. Currently, the autonomous sprayer seems to be better suited to growers or custom applicators with large contiguous blocks of orchards.

Samuel and his brothers serve predominately smaller-scale producers who have 5-, 20- or 40-acre blocks scattered around. The Samuels typically use a 100-horsepower tractor to pull a PTO-driven sprayer, and they can turn around and put the tractor to other uses, such as at harvest.

GUSS, on the other hand, is designed just for spraying. Nevertheless, Samuel said they continue to monitor labor availability and costs and weigh it against the self-driving sprayer.

“I’m not sure how it would fit into our operation yet,” he said. “It’s all about penciling it out.”

GUSS autonomous orchard sprayers

GUSS created a buzz when Crinklaw Farm Services of Kingsburg showed it off during the 2018 World Ag Expo in Tulare.

The brainchild of custom applicator Dave Crinklaw, the autonomous sprayer was developed to address labor shortages in his orchard spraying business. Company engineer Chase Schapansky took Crinklaw’s ideas and designed what would become GUSS, a 23-foot long, 11,000-pound self-driving stainless steel airblast sprayer.

The company already was building its own sprayers, including ones with See and Spray technology, for its own use.

The autonomous sprayer, which is powered by a 6.7-liter Cummins engine producing 173 horsepower, carries a 600-gallon spray tank. The 90-gallon fuel tank provides about 14 hours of run time.

GUSS uses GPS and LIDAR, a form of Light Detection and Ranging, as well as other sensors to guide itself through orchards. As a result, it can run day or night.

An employee must monitor the spray activities, but a single person can oversee up to eight autonomous sprayers at a time from a pickup truck using a laptop computer.

When other growers caught wind of GUSS, they wanted units, too. In late 2019, the first sprayers came off the production line of a new factory north of Kingsburg. A spin-off division, GUSS Automation L.P., builds, sells and repairs the sprayers.

Monarch electric tractors

More than three dozen farmers recently braved 100-degree heat to see firsthand Monarch’s all-electric driver-optional tractor navigate winegrape vineyard rows north of Lockeford.

For John Semas, who grows winegrapes near Jahant Road, the idea of possible fuel savings was intriguing.

“The way my tractor is burning diesel, I think this would be really good,” said Semas, who attended the demonstration.

Conversion from fossil fuels to electric, which the company says is more economical, was a driving force behind the tractor design, said Monarch head of growth Douglas Kolker. But he also pointed to the labor-saving driver-optional feature, which means a skilled operator isn’t needed to drive orchard or vineyard rows and avoid obstacles.

This season, Livermore-based tractor company has 15 pilot units in the hands of participating growers, who will provide feedback, he said.

Those comments, as well as observations made by company engineers, will be used to improve the tractors before they enter production. Development of the initial prototype began in 2016.

The basic tractor has 40 continuous horsepower and a 70-horsepower peak. RTK GPS, which has sub-inch accuracy, guides the tractor down the rows. Twelve cameras on the tractor record the passes, collecting data that can be used to guide future hands-off passes or for other purposes. The data also is used by the tractor’s computer to improve upon previous passes.

The company currently is taking $500 deposits for orders, which will go into production in early 2022. The deposit ensures the current price of $58,000 for the two-wheel-drive model and $68,000 for the four-wheel-drive model, Kolker said.

In addition, the machine may qualify for incentives under the California Air Resources Board Funding Agricultural Replacement Measures for Emission Reductions, or FARMER, program.

“So far, demand exceeds production,” he said. “This (deposit) holds today’s guaranteed price. There will inevitably in short order be a price increase.”

The tractor’s battery lasts eight to 12 hours on a charge, depending on the use and the equipment draw. It comes with a 10-year warranty.

Charging, using 220-volt current, takes four to five hours. A back-up battery is available for $15,000, and swap out takes about 10 minutes.

Semas, who recently purchased an 80-horsepower Kubota diesel tractor for $62,000, said he found the Monarch prices “pretty reasonable.”

FarmWise’s Titan autonomous weeder

The behemoth 3-ton diesel-powered Titan FT-35 from Salinas-based FarmWise Labs could be coming to San Joaquin County processing tomato and melon fields as early as 2022.

The machine enlists a camera along each seed line to photograph plants as they approach. The images are fed into an onboard computer, which records the different crops and uses machine learning to differentiate between cultivated crops and weeds.

In a fraction of a second, nearby blades remove the offending weed, leaving the crop intact. How closely the knives come to the crop and the extent of weed removal depend on a number of factors, said Pauline Canteneur, FarmWise head of business development and partnerships.

A crop planted on a well-prepared bed will be easier and faster to weed than one seeded on a bed full of clods. The weed pressure also factors in as does the farmer’s goals. The machine is designed to be autonomous, but an operator still walks along side, performing quality control and adhering to Cal-Occupational Safety and Health Administration rules.

Currently, FarmWise offers the weeding as a service, removing farmers’ risk and up-front capital investments. By doing so, Canteneur said, the company also gains access to a wide range of field conditions, cultural practices and crops that helps them build more robust databases.

“We get a lot of field hours to refine our products,” she said.

Until now, the company had focused on the salad-growing region of the Salinas Valley, but it plans to expand into the winter desert production areas of the Imperial Valley and Yuma, Arizona, this fall. Next year, Canteneur said, they hope to add San Joaquin Valley processing tomatoes and melons.

In the coming months, FarmWise also plans to introduce a smaller PTO-driven weeder that can be pulled by a New Holland T-5 tractor.

“Today, we’re doing everything – building a tractor and smart implement from scratch,” she said. “We’re moving away temporarily from the autonomous conversation and focusing on automating tasks that are being done by manual labor.”

A trial conducted in a Salinas Valley lettuce field in 2020 found no yield differences in fields weeded manually and those weeded with Naïo Technologies’ Dino or FarmWise’s Titan autonomous machines. The researchers were Elizabeth Mosqueda with California State University, Monterey Bay, and Richard Smith and Steve Fennimore with the University of California Cooperative Extension.

“Overall, auto weeders removed about twice the number of weeds than standard cultivation from the 6-inch band around the seed line and reduced subsequent hand weeding/double removal by four hours per acre,” the researchers wrote. “In general, the use of auto weeders appears to be clearly justified in fields with higher weed densities. However, other pressures may also spur the move to automated weeders such as increasing labor costs and lower labor availability.”