Takeaways From GAI AgTech Week 2017 – Labor Pains

July 5, 2017

Often when discussing agricultural production and agtech innovation, the conversation focuses on the challenges associated with factors such as crop yields, inputs, and climate change – all valid and important considerations. These topics of study and development are also largely quantifiable (which is a very good thing) however, labor issues are also a more nebulous, but critical pain point in the food production process.

During this year’s GAI AgTech Week 2017 conference, a panel entitled, How can agtech tackle the farm labor crisis? including Jeffrey Steen, partner with Kachina LLC & Ecosa Opportunities; Alan Boyce, executive chairman of the Materra Farming Company; Jacob Carter, founder and CEO of Tellus Partners; and Daniel Rothrock, controller of Piepel Premium Fruit, discussed the labor landscape in the ag sector and how agtech is working to alleviate the challenges and address the issues.

Farm labor is getting scarcer and more expensive than ever, noted Steen, who stated that demographic shifts in both Mexico and the U.S. are pointing to an expected outflow of labor back to Mexico. This shift is already being reflected in the numbers, as the number of undocumented Mexicans in the U.S. has declined from 6.9 million in 2007 to 5.6 million in 2016. On the ground, this scenario resulted in Driscoll’s having to abandon 20 percent of their berries in 2015 and 2016 due to a shortage of labor.

Further, the available undocumented farm labor force in the U.S. would historically travel to follow the harvests of various crops up or down the West Coast. Today, less and less workers are willing to migrate due to fear of arrest and deportation.

Although securing a labor force is proving a challenge, paying for one can truly affect a farming operation’s bottom line. Rothrock explained that Piepel Premium Fruit spends about $10,000 per acre on labor – 60 percent of which is dedicated to harvest. The company has seen a 30 percent increase in wages in the past three years and is facing another 20 percent increase by 2020.

Boyce stated that Materra isn’t faced with as severe a labor shortage as other operations due to its Mexican work force being able to obtain day passes to work, however, the rise in minimum wages is a challenge.

“I have a couple of challenges,” noted Boyce. “We’re a big grower of pistachios, and trees if taken care of will live for hundreds of years – with that it’s very important to us to be sustainable – and if labor is going to be expensive now, just image the future.”

To alleviate these labor pains, producers are looking to agtech. Jacob Carter of Tellus Partners noted that he and Boyce of Materra Farming are investors, along with Google Ventures and BayWa AG in Hayward, in California-based Abundant Robotics.

Seeing the need for advancement, Abundant Robotics co-founder and CEO Dan Steere told Tech Crunch that the company began collaborating with apple growers four years ago to create a robot that can safely automate the harvesting process.

“You direct this robot to go someplace, see and pick an apple, and go again. It’s a very non-trivial engineering challenge,” Steere told Tech Crunch. “To detect apples very precisely you have to see down at the millimeter level in real time. That requires software, and on the hardware side, chips that allow you to do real time image processing on the fly.”

Until recently, the technology wasn’t there to create an automated harvester that wouldn’t bruise the fruit and reduce its value. However, advances in computer vision and image processing have opened the door to commercialization for companies like Abundant.

Ara Nefian, co-founder and CTO of Intelinair, touched on advances in technology catching up to the needs of the sector, during another panel discussion, What can agtech stakeholders learn from other sectors?

“It’s only now that computer power has become cheap,” said Nefian. “New sensors that give us amazing resolution – analytics become possible with new technology –  combining sensor computing power and algorithms – the time is now or the right time is about to come.”

-Lynda Kiernan

Lynda Kiernan is Editor with GAI Media and daily contributor to GAI News. If you would like to submit a contribution for consideration, please contact Ms. Kiernan at















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