June 28, 2013 8:01 pm

Ripening of skills required

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Strawberry growers are on a mission to banish the term “unskilled worker” from the immigration debate. Unlike some vegetables that are ready to be harvested in large swaths, each strawberry ripens at its own pace. The same row of strawberry plants will be harvested three times a week to capture the fruit at just the right time. Workers must rely on a keen, quick sense of judgment on the size, shape, and colour of a berry before putting it in their basket.

“Each one of those pieces of fruit is selected and harvested individually by people,” said Eric Lauritzen, agricultural commissioner for Monterey County.

The argument is bolstered by the technical difficulty of replicating that judgment and dexterity in non-human form. Prototypes of mechanical strawberry pickers are currently being built for use on Northern California farms, borrowing optical lasers from the medical industry to gauge berry colour.

Spain has had success developing its own machines – Europe faced its labour crisis earlier than the US, giving it a jump-start on agricultural technology development. But those models do not translate to the farming style and comparatively massive production scale of US strawberry farms, said Chris Christian of the California Strawberry Commission. It will still be several years before robots dot American strawberry farms.

Researchers are also actively searching for an alternative to controversial fumigants that keep pests away from strawberries. “Strawberries are attractive to a lot of things,” said Norm Groot, executive director of the Monterey County Farm Bureau.

Environmental advocates have raised concerns about the effect of chemicals on the air and land, but farmers have struggled to find an effective and commercially viable replacement. Now some scientists are even trying to find a way to grow strawberries in new materials, instead of soil or dirt.

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