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AI: Automation and labor

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Produce suppliers are looking to artificial intelligence to solve longstanding—and deteriorating—labor challenges, for multiple reasons, says Thuan Ngo, vice president of data and technical services with San Jose, CA-based IT consultancy ZAG Technical Services, Inc. BB #:365534.

“Workers performing job duties that are repetitive and/or pose a safety risk can and most likely will be automated,” he predicts. “Even in areas where labor is cheap, downtime due to injuries and replacing injured staff offsets the benefits of cheap labor.”

And AI can reduce angst over unreliable labor pools, Ngo adds. “Robotic automation is going a long way toward addressing this problem through automated planters, cultivators, and harvesters.”

Steven Shuman, sales manager for G&R Farms, BB #:114342 Glennville, GA, sees AI as a workforce solution as well. “It’s going to be a tool to help us all move faster and meet the changing needs of labor.”

It’s happening at an accelerated pace, says Keith Wilson, managing member at King Fresh Produce, LLC, BB #:147197 a grower-shipper in Dinuba, CA, noting that self-driving tractors, trucks, and sprayers are becoming more prevalent. “Those types of things are where we see some big strides in ag.”

However, technological advances seem speedier in some produce sectors than others, he adds.

“Really, there aren’t too many fresh fruit items that can be mechanically harvested—blueberries are one, but there aren’t many other items. You’re not going to machine-pick a banana or grape that’s on a vine, but I know they’re working on it.”

Labor costs likely will force accelerated research, forecasts Wilson. “As you see labor rates going up,  it’s more economically feasible to develop this type of technology.”

This is an excerpt from the Applied Technology feature in the November/December 2023 issue of Produce Blueprints Magazine. Click here to read the whole issue.