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, answered that call of solving the agricultural labor crisis with an acute vision and insatiable determination.
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,” said Wishnatzki in 2017 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.”
Wishnatzki took initiative to explore viable solutions and co-founded Harvest CROO Robotics, a startup dedicated to using technology and automation to answer the call for agricultural innovation.
“There’s a tremendous need for automation, and at the same time, technology is coming of age where we can do this,” Wishnatzki said in the same testimony.
In 2013, Harvest CROO engineered a prototype for a fully autonomous strawberry harvester to tackle the labor shortage from which many agricultural operations were suffering.
“The prototype can – in an actual working strawberry field – identify, select and pick only ripe strawberries while leaving the unripe berries and plants unharmed,” said Wishnatzki. “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 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, Harvest CROO 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’s farm 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,” said Wishnatzki in the committee testimony. “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,” said Wishnatzki. “The robots being positioned and working with sub-half-inch accuracy also fascinates most people.”
This modern marvel may seem shiny and new with several bells and whistles, but Wishnatzki 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.”
Wishnatzki 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,” said Wishnatzki. “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?”
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 Wishnatzki 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.”
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,” said Wishnatzki. “I’m confident that Farm Credit will stick with us through thick and thin.”