Earlier this week, The Associated Press ran a big story about the Lettuce Bot, a high-tech piece of equipment that promises (as its name implies) to do the time- and labor-intensive work of weeding and thinning out baby lettuces so that remaining plants can grow. In fact, the AP reports a Lettuce Bot “can ‘thin’ a field of lettuce in the time it takes about 20 workers to do the job by hand.”
This is not the first time farming has moved toward automation (California sauce tomatoes, for instance, are almost entirely harvested by machines). But for labor-intensive lettuce farms, it could be a big step. And, for the owners of industrial-scale farms under a great deal of pressure to produce heaps and heaps of cheap, plentiful food, technological solutions such as the Lettuce Bot sound understandably promising. You see, labor is currently one of the biggest costs of growing vegetables, and a diminishing number of people want to work for the usually abysmal rates most big farms can afford to pay.
Also interesting is the fact that Blue River Technology, the company behind the Bot, sees it as a long-term solution to reducing the use of some pesticides and the genetically engineered seeds bred to withstand their application. In an interview with Modern Farmer earlier this year, Jorge Heraud, one of the Lettuce Bot’s creators, said:
What we’re talking about is bringing technology that is a little bit different: electronics, computers, cameras, and sophisticated algorithms. We want to find different applications for that. Weeding is done now by a combination of genetically modified crops and herbicides that kill everything except the plants that have been genetically modified. So we wanted to bring an alternative to that and have a solution that is scalable, affordable and doesn’t rely on genetically modified crops.
It’s a worthwhile premise, but will robots in the fields really fix our food system?
Benjamin Shute grows 25 acres of vegetables and sells his crop through a community-supported agriculture (CSA) share system. And while his farm, Hearty Roots Community Farm, in Germantown, NY, is clearly on the opposite end of the spectrum from the mega-farms that will most likely employ the Lettuce Bot, he admits he often dreams of finding a way to mechanize his most difficult farm chores. But Shute adds that he’s developed a few ground rules to determine what tasks to mechanize on his farm.
For one, Shute doesn’t want a machine or robot to take away his ability to pay attention to the farm. “Hand weeding gives me a chance to notice how the plants are doing up close. So if a robot could hand weed for me, I’d need to be careful to use time saved to observe all pieces of my farm ecosystem even more closely, which could help me make more sustainable management choices,” he says.
He also worries about what would happen if his farm became so dependent on a machine, that it would fail to run smoothly if the machine stopped working. And, he says, “I want technology that serves me, my farmworkers, my customers and my community; I don’t want my farm to just be a profit center for a tech company.”
Shute is one of several people bringing together creative young farmers and engineers for a reoccurring event called FarmHack. According to the group’s site, FarmHack is “a farmer-driven community to develop, document and build tools for resilient agriculture.” Their events bring farmers in contact with engineers, designers, and architects interested in helping create technological tools that are open-source, accessible and affordable.
“If we’re going to choose to farm with robots, let’s make sure we’re in charge of, and we understand, our robots,” says Shute.
Dan Paluska, a robotics engineer-turned-farmer who has also been involved with FarmHack, is all for the kinds of machinery being built by the group, because he sees it as “part of an effort to have more ownership over the things we have.”
But, after years of building them himself, he sees robots as counterintuitive to rebuilding local food systems.
“Who can afford to have these robots, and fix these robots?” Paluska asks. “Only the big companies. The robots want larger systems. The larger system you have, the more you have a difference between the executive class and the worker class.”
So, while the Lettuce Bot may keep farms here in the U.S. from relying on a steady supply of low-paid farmworkers, the overall premise that industrial farm robotics are labor-savers might be misleading. Instead, Paluska calls it “a displacement of labor.”
“It distances us from the reality that everything takes work,” he continues. “Your robot may be doing the work, but all the computer parts had to be built, and all heavy metals and other exotic metals had to be mined out of the ground somewhere. That probably involves people working in conditions you wouldn’t want your family members to have to experience. It’s just less visible to us here.”