With field workers getting harder to find, farmers are turning their attention to automated equipment. The economies of the United States and Mexico are booming, and workers are looking for better opportunities off the fields.

Field work used to be a family tradition, but younger generations aren’t interested in following in the footsteps of their parents and grandparents. They’re getting an education and entering other industries.

Americans don’t want to do the work either, and tougher immigration policies are discouraging some workers from coming to the U.S.

In addition, growers are facing rising labor costs due to increases in the minimum wage.

In an effort to help growers find solutions and alternatives, the Yuma Center of Excellence for Desert Agriculture and the Yuma Agricultural Center co-hosted  an “Automated Thinning and Weeding Technologies Field Demo” on Oct. 24 in the fields around the Yuma Agricultural Center, 6425 W. 8th St.

Dr. Mark Siemens of the Cooperative Extension, whose area of emphasis is precision and mechanized agriculture, and farm superintendent Humberto Hernandez were instrumental in organizing the event, which allowed the more than 150 attendees from all over the world to see the latest technologies demonstrated and talk with company representatives.

The event couldn’t have come at a better time. “The industry is facing a labor shortage and escalating costs for labor with the increases in minimum wage,” Siemens noted.

Growers have “tremendous interest” in these technologies right now, he added. “Technology for automated thinning and weeding is advancing rapidly and we wanted to give growers and the industry the opportunity to see the latest developments for this growing season.”

Some of the topics addressed automated thinning and weeding, efficient farming, visual recognition and robotic vision technologies, labor-saving cultivator guidance systems, and more.

In his opinion, the event turned out “outstanding” due to “the fact that we had representation from all of the current commercial manufacturers of automated thinning and weeding technologies. The principles of these were all present.”

Technology is getting better all the time. Siemens described it as “more mature in that it’s much more reliable and productive. It can cover more acres per hour.” Plus it’s “much more” affordable than in the past.

Which is what growers want and need, according to Paul Brierley, executive director at YCEDA. He agreed that a consistent workforce is getting harder to find. Growers no longer use the same 25-man crew year after year.

There’s not enough people to do the necessary tasks and it’s “fairly skilled” work, Brierley added. “You need to go out and know which to weed out and which to leave.”

Automated technology can achieve a savings in labor costs as well as getting the job done “better and faster,” he said. 

Ed Peachey, who works with the Oregon State University’s Extension Service, also believes automated technology has the potential to reduce labor needs in agriculture. He attended the event because he wanted to check out what technology might be available for farmers in his area.

“Labor is definitely a problem. It’s hard to find folks who want to work in agriculture. The economy is booming and they want to do other things,” Peachey said, adding that those that do want to work in the fields are “pickier,” for example, choosing to work with berries rather than broccoli.

Companies are investing a lot of money in developing technology, some of it coming straight out of Silicon Valley, such as computer visioning and artificial intelligence.

The initial cost for growers might be high, but Brierley believes the machines will pay for themselves, especially when one machine can replace a crew of 25 and can run 24/7 and cover more acres in a shorter time.

Jason Mellow of Agmechtronix joked that the company’s automated row crop thinner won’t show up late or with a hangover. He said the equipment was built by growers for growers and in the desert for the desert.

The software system is easy to use and available in a Spanish version. The system is simple, and the driver doesn’t have to do a lot of thinking on the move. The parts are easily accessible and can be changed quickly with parts from a hardware store, which means minimal downtime.

Each of the 12 vendors gave an overview of their latest automated technology and then demonstrated the equipment. Nick Compass of Keithly-Williams said he liked that the event allowed customers to take a first-hand look at technology that they might not be comfortable with. He noted that some growers are skeptical and fearful, but the field demos allowed them to observe and feel the technology.

The event allowed growers to get together with vendors and ask them questions so they could decide what makes sense for them and find out what’s coming next. Brierley noted that some had never had this opportunity before.

The event received good feedback. “I had the general sense that attendees were pleased with the event. They stuck around until the end. The vendors said it was an excellent event for them and that they had multiple follow-ups,” Siemens said.