Plant City, Florida
Agriculture rapidly evolves, and each new development calls for industry experts to become innovative entrepreneurs like never before.
Gary Wishnatzki, owner of Wish Farms and a long-time Farm Credit of Central Florida customer, is working to help solve the agricultural labor crisis with an acute vision and insatiable determination. He co-founded Harvest CROO Robotics, a startup dedicated to using technology and automation to answer the call for agricultural innovation.
No stranger to challenges
The Wishnatzki family has farmed berries since 1987, so Gary is no stranger to the challenges emerging on the horizon for an industry that makes up for more than $1 billion of Florida’s economy.
“In recent years, the specialty crop sector has faced serious challenges,” Gary explained in his testimony to the United States House Agriculture Committee. “Most growers agree that availability of labor is the greatest of these challenges. I believe innovation can play a role in solving this.There’s a tremendous need for automation, and at the same time, technology is coming of age where we can do this,” Gary said.
Tackling labor issues
In 2013, Harvest CROO Robotics engineered a prototype for a fully autonomous strawberry harvester to tackle the labor shortage many agricultural operations were experiencing.
“The prototype can–in an actual working strawberry field–identify, select and pick only ripe strawberries while leaving the unripe berries and plants unharmed,” Gary testified. “The use of this technology will improve the quality of the berries picked, reduce energy usage and increase strawberry yields by at least 10 percent.”
Since the flagship prototype, Harvest CROO Robotics has been extolled with awards and grants. In 2016, the National Science Foundation awarded a Small Business Innovation Research Program grant that supported their development of this automated machine. That same year, the company was selected as one of the six finalists of Western Growers AgTech Innovation Arena startup competition.
The robotic strawberry picking platform has quickly developed and moved into testing on Wish Farms in Duette, Florida.
“My cofounder developed a patented system using soft claws on a picking wheel, and that’s allowed us to travel around the plant, dive and pick at commercial speed,” he said. “The processing power of computer chips has dramatically increased in the last five years. We’re processing 30 gigabytes of data per second.”
The sheer technological power of the machine comes with its fair share of admiration from onlookers.
“Most people react in awe when they see the absolute size of the vehicle,” he said. “The robots being positioned and working with sub-half-inch accuracy also fascinates most people.”
A long way to go
This modern marvel may seem shiny and new with several bells and whistles, but Gary insists it is still in early stages of development.
“Realistically, commercialization is several years away. Though when it happens, it will happen swiftly,” he explained. “Throughout history, when a disruptive technology emerges, it can be adopted very quickly and life before that technology was introduced is soon forgotten.”
Gary says that the disruptive magnitude of this development in agricultural labor is analogous to the effect the introduction of smartphones had on society.
“Smart phones seem like they’ve been around forever, but the iPhone was introduced only in 2007,” Gary said. “The technology Harvest CROO is developing is in its infancy can be compared to a 1980s cell phone. With the first cell phones, consumers wanted to easily make a phone call. Today, growers want to easily pick strawberries. Our picking platform will progress with many add on features, like cell phones have. Who could have imagined a smart phone in the 1980s?”
Spirit of innovation
The harvester has plans to become a staple of agricultural labor, and already has tremendous support from both Florida and California growers. Approximately two-thirds of the United States strawberry industry is represented as investors in Harvest CROO Robotics.
Aligning with the spirit of innovation, Farm Credit of Central Florida finds the bold way Gary navigates the rough waters of the industry beneficial to the future.
“Farm Credit has always been supportive of the research and development projects we have undertaken,” he said. “They recognize agriculture needs to consider the future of the industry to maintain a competitive advantage in the world marketplace.”
Supporting the entreprenuerial spirit
The confidence placed in Harvest CROO to maintain that competitive advantage is completely warranted. The autonomous harvester can pick a single strawberry plant in eight seconds and move on to the next in 1.5 seconds. The machine will eventually have the capacity to pick eight acres of strawberries in a single day and will do the work of more than 30 pickers.
“Farm Credit’s mission of financing agriculture is a tremendous asset to growers,” Gary said. “I’m confident that Farm Credit will stick with us through thick and thin.”