World Agri-Tech Summit: Tackling Labor Shortages Beyond Automation
Discussing row crop agriculture, Lance Ruppert, Executive Director, Agronomy Marketing & Technology at GROWMARK, sets the scene, commenting on the challenges the industry has been facing: “Ag retail has a shortage of operational people such as applicators, tender truck drivers, and also location and operations managers. We seem to be ok on the salesperson and agronomist side of things. Economics is a part of the equation as we currently compete for the same type of person who is a truck driver.”
Seana Day, CULTERRA CAPITAL & BETTER FOOD VENTURES
Seana Day, looks at the two dimensions of labor shortage challenges: on-farm labor (seasonal/contract and employee), as well as first mile labor (hauling milk, animals, bulk commodities, produce and processing plants). “Across the entire production system there are acute shortages that are being felt, but particularly in trucking and processing where COVID has had a significant impact. An aging, and often transient, workforce has also accelerated the need for tools that make labor more efficient and easy to onboard, meaning UX/UI is extremely important” she says.
Robert Saik, AGVISORPRO
For Rob Saik, the answer is evident: “There is no way to fix agriculture’s labor shortage with labor.” Rob sees the reasons behind the current and rising challenges quite clearly: “The fact is, most farm work is dull, dangerous and dirty – that isn’t a description of a career that attracts top talent. Mix in the fact that many farms are “rural” in nature, meaning very few dates in the pub in the evening. Layer on top that there are very few people mentally equipped to work 16+ hour days in complex machines that cost more than $750,000 each. Add these together and you’ve got what we’ve got: an acute labor shortage on the farm and up the agri-food value chain.”
“Additionally, we have the attrition of “silver hairs”; those individuals who have deep domain knowledge in specific areas of agriculture such as veterinary practice, crop pathology, heavy duty mechanics and even strategic business planning. We are experiencing a mass exodus of deep agriculture wisdom, at farm level and within agriculture companies, which is compounded by the fact that many young people entering post-secondary agriculture institutions today are urban, with no practical on-farm experience. While these young people have great passion, there needs to be a mechanism of technical support or “train the trainer” systems put in place that will transfer yesterday’s domain knowledge to support the agriculture workers of the future.”
So, what technologies can address and complement existing talent in the field and give farmers the support that they need?
For Lance, “Technology that makes operations more efficient and the possibility of autonomous equipment are some potential solutions. More technology may lend itself to needing a higher-level person who can run the software, and that may make finding the right people harder.”
Seana is seeing incremental adoption of workflow and automation technologies across production systems, and lists a few examples:
“Digitizing workflows such as milk tickets (Milk Moovement) or scale tickets (Bushel) in order to reduce the need for manual or double entry and process transactions and payments more quickly. In many cases, this process improvement not only increases efficiency but also eliminates the need for people in the back office to spend time doing paper reconciliation.
Automation of repetitive tasks in production plants, like almond processors or apple pack houses where vision systems and sorters are automating the laborious (and often subjective) QA/QC process. In the field, simple tasks like moving bins from rows to aggregation points can take a lot of time and robotics companies are stepping in to solve these less complex workflows.
Spray automation is getting traction in specialty crops where crop protection is a big grower pain point. It can be a more skilled job that requires not just uniformity, but significant overhead with certifications, liability exposure, health concerns top of mind. It’s great to see this being solved with both autonomous equipment as well as precision spraying with UAVs.
Hauler apps and ag-specific logistics solutions are starting to get some early traction, and I am especially excited about this space. It’s a difficult problem to solve, given the fragmentation of the trucking industry, but it’s also a valuable one because asset utilization is such a big financial and sustainability opportunity in ag and the broader supply chain. These solutions also bring embedded traceability from farm gate to processor or originator. Given the supply chain disruptions of 2020-2021, I expect to see some promising innovation here.”
Rob sets out the priorities ahead: “If you are a farmer who continues to operate equipment in a traditional “driven by human” manner then you will pay more and more for qualified operators. As our 70 and 80 year old farm operators finally retire or pass on, we will have to stretch good operators over more acres (hectares) for longer hours in bigger machines.
The “rise of the robots” will be a “when” not an “if” evolution, addressing the issues of high capital cost of equipment, high operating costs and enabling the “scaling” of one operator over many machines simultaneously.
There will be a new career in agriculture. Farm technology integrators will be very important in leveraging the sensor data coming from IoT devices connected to data platforms providing information crunched by algorithms that ultimately needs to be connected to the aforementioned robots or machines in order to get the work done.
We MUST find a way to stretch brains, not bodies and leverage technology to put “silver hairs” and other experts on the farm without them being in the field, in the shop, in the barn or in the greenhouse.”
Producing food sustainably must become a valued and desirable career choice for the next generation.
Summarizing the need to change our mindset and language around farming, Rob concludes: “We need to rethink the words “farm labor” and begin communicating about a farming “career” and sell the virtues of an essential sector, coupled with a legacy of strong values to young people in a way that we have never talked about before. We need to shift the language from “I’m a farm hand” to one of “I am a farm technologist”, or “professional farm equipment operator”. If we want great people in our industry, we need to paint a long-term career path and tie that to respect and dignity.”
Rob, Seana and Lance will continue the conversation at the World Agri-Tech Innovation Summit in San Francisco, on March 22-23, 2022. Seana and Lance will take the stage on the panel ‘Business Automation: Unlocking New Levels of Innovation & Business Agility’, along with top-level specialists from Proagrica, Solinftec, Intelinair and Sentera.