Mechanization-Automation in Vegetable Production: It’s Personal and Important

The big picture is that (vegetable) farming has been mechanizing and automating aggressively for more than a century, although the pace seems to be accelerating and the range of tasks targeted for improvement seems to be increasing. There are many reasons for these trends, but all may come down to the fact that technology that addresses peoples’ needs is personal and, therefore, important. Indeed, read nearly any issue of The American Vegetable Grower Magazine (or its online counterpart https://www.growingproduce.com/), The Vegetable Growers News (https://vegetablegrowersnews.com/magazine/), or other farmer-focused magazine, blog, or newsletter, watch videos or listen to podcasts, or attend industry programs and you will be exposed to personal stories of how specific machines or pieces of equipment are assisting growers in some new way at some point from seeding through post-harvest handling. Stories come from input suppliers, growers, people in extension and research, equipment manufacturers and retailers, and others. Collectively, these stories have given me many lessons but three will be highlighted here.

First, overall, mechanization and semi- to full automation of core farm activities will continue. Trends begun long ago are fully established with incentives to mechanize/automate increasing and obstacles to the process decreasing. Second, growers have various options now and will have others going forward. “There’s an app for that” was popularized about thirteen years ago (and trademarked soon after). However, it now also seems to apply to equipment or machines designed to help farmers since some see nearly every major vegetable seedling or crop production activity historically requiring people as eligible for some form of mechanization or automation. GPS and/or laser-guided automatic weeders/cultivators demonstrated at a recent industry program in Ontario, Canada (https://onvegetables.com/2022/02/28/tomato-day-coming-on-march-10-2022/) and available for rent were especially impressive to me, although many other examples of grower-friendly options are available or in the pipeline (e.g., “scouts,” sensors/actuators, samplers, seeders, transplanters, sprayers, harvesters, etc). Examples are often on display at conferences, tradeshows, and expos in and around Ohio and farther away (e.g., https://www.worldagexpo.com/ – see list of exhibitors at 2022 program). It is also important to note that some machines or pieces of equipment are being designed with more than completing the task in mind (e.g., environmental sustainability). The third lesson available from paying attention to mechanization-automation in the vegetable and specialty crop sector is that off-the-shelf technology that reduces down-time, increases efficiency and/or productivity, or provides other benefits is increasingly practical to an increasingly diverse range of vegetable growers, regardless of the size, location, or other characteristics of their operation. Formerly most relevant to very large, heavily capitalized operations, current generations of machines and pieces of equipment are available to a much larger group of vegetable farms. Some developers, manufacturers, and retailers are more willing to discuss or offer: a) machinery and equipment applicable across more production conditions (including farm size) and b) lease or lease-to-own access. So, access to viable options for mechanizing-automating is increasing, and the time may be right to experiment on your farm.

There is much to consider and a lot at stake when mechanizing-automating and various approaches are used. The farmers responsible for https://www.growingproduce.com/vegetables/why-one-small-vegetable-farm-adopted-mechanization/ emphasize relying on input from other farmers, including via YouTube. Going forward, we will feature grower experiences with tools improving vegetable production we are helping pilot, including systems increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of high tunnel ventilation (temperature, humidity) management.

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