PLANT CITY, Fla. (WFLA) – A Tampa Bay area strawberry farm owner hopes his technology can help keep strawberries in kitchens across America.
“I fear without automation, we’re going to revert back to strawberries becoming a luxury item,” said Gary Wishnatzki, owner of Wish Farms, which has operations in Florida, California and other berry-growing states.
Wishnatzki, a third-generation strawberry grower, says it’s a labor issue. Most workers who pick crops in the United States come from Mexico. Data from the USDA shows fewer young immigrants are entering agriculture.
“There’s more opportunities for people to work in Mexico. People don’t want to do agriculture labor any more, especially picking strawberries. It’s hard work,” Wishnatzki said.
A study from the University of California, Davis, shows declining fertility rates in Mexico are also playing a role.
Wishnatzki noticed the labor trend in the early 2000s and, years later, founded Harvest CROO to develop a robotic picker.
Automated strawberry picking is a challenge. Machinery has to be delicate enough not to squish or bruise the berry and precise enough to pick it at the right time.
“The strawberry is one of the few fruits that does not ripen after it’s been picked so you have to pick it when it’s red. If you pick it too green, it’s going to stay green and that’s what the consumer is going to get,” said Wishnatzki.
Unlike other harvest equipment, the strawberry picker cannot destroy the plant. A strawberry plant gets picked for multiple days as each berry ripens.
“We’ve just been trialing some new picking heads that are faster and lighter. We think we’re ready to go to market here now. We’ve got growers that have put their orders in,” said Wishnatzki.
Competitors have teamed up to support the initiative.
“Seventy percent of the U.S. strawberry industry has invested with us,” said Wishnatzki.
The latest model, Berry 8, is designed to pick eight acres in a 16-24 hour day. As for the existing strawberry pickers, Wishnatzki says they can transition to other positions.
“There’ll be opportunities and it’ll be higher paying jobs for them to work. It won’t be the back-breaking work that it is now. It’ll be the technicians and the people that are the mechanics, and people that are going to work on the machines and move the fruit around after it’s been picked,” he said.
“It’s a game-changer,” said Kenneth Parker, executive director of Florida Strawberry Growers Association.
Parker is impressed with the Harvest CROO technology and says the implementation cannot happen soon enough.
“We’re not trying to change the way that we grow strawberries. we’re just trying to adopt a harvester that will actually utilize the method of which we’re successfully growing strawberries in Florida,” said Wishnatzki.
The goal is to have the Harvest CROO machines in operation by the next strawberry harvest season.