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'Strawberry Picking Robot' Helping to Address Farming Labor Shortage

PLANT CITY, Fla. (CW44 News At 10) - As industries face labor shortages across the country, Florida farming has seen worker shortages since long before the pandemic.

For about ten thousand years, humans have cultivated food through farming. Each year, the Florida strawberry farming industry employs an estimated 15,000 workers. That is, until it became harder to do. Strawberries need picking every three days throughout the season, but people became harder to recruit.

"So, on average in industry, about 25% of the fields go unpicked each year because of labor shortages," explained Dr. McGee, Executive Chairman/CEO for Harvest CROO Robotics. Approximately 40 percent of the cost to supply strawberries is allocated for labor salaries which keep going up. "And there's probably $100,000 per acre invested in the ground, so when you don't pick, you have a big issue."

This issue could be seen right here in the bay area.

"Back in 2013, Gary [Wishnatski] was having significant labor issues," explained Dr. McGee. "Roughly, for every acre, you need one person. So, the farm that we're on [in Tampa Bay] is 700 acres so it needs 700 people to pick the strawberries."

With strawberry farmers struggling to find a solution to their dwindling workforce, suddenly, an innovative idea: "Could you pick a strawberry by robotics?"

Working with the largest contiguous strawberry farm in the country, Dr. joseph McGee and Harvest CROO created B7, a strawberry picking robot.

"We map out the field at the start of the season and we can program the harvester to go pick any part of that farm. Once it gets there, there are 16 robots that hang from the harvester," he explained. Equipped with four cameras it determines orientation and center of gravity for a targeted solution.

"Once the robot is over the center plant, they come down and they pull all the leaves to the middle," he said. "The robot, then spins around, they look at every piece of fruit [and] it determines based on a color spectrum if the fruit is ripe or not and is it ready to pick," he pointed out. The fruit is then dropped into a fluid handling system that cleans and removes pathogens – then cools the strawberry resulting in longer shelf life. "It's such a delicate fruit. For every hour you take to get that strawberry down to about 30 degrees, you lose one day of shelf life." Giving the Florida strawberry and it's fans a fighting chance.

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