Automation, by way of survival, is the big mission for Wish Farms in 2016. The project is off to a sweet start.
The tastiness of a ripe strawberry defies the difficulties in getting the fruit to market.
“Strawberry picking is not an easy game,” says Gary Wishnatzki, third generation owner of Wish Farms in Plant City. “It's a young person's game, and you really need people just arriving [in this country] hungry for work who will do this.”
That type of worker isn't always easy to find. California — where some Wish Farms growers are located — had labor shortages this past summer. Farmers often have to use H-2A temporary agricultural worker visas, a “costly and burdensome program,” says Wishnatzki. And changes in immigration patterns are causing concern. More Mexican immigrants, for example, returned to Mexico from the U.S. than migrated here from 2009 to 2014, according to a recent Pew Research Center analysis.
“Without the flow of immigrants coming here, we better find an automated solution,” says Wishnatzki.
That's why Wishnatzki co-founded Harvest CROO Robotics, an entity working to discover that solution. It's already tested some prototypes of an industry-altering robotic strawberry harvester, and the company planned to test a smaller prototype at a Wish Farms-affiliated location in north Manatee County by the end of 2015. This latest device performed well in
California during the late summer. “We're excited to get it here and put it through the paces in Florida,” says Wishnatzki.
The next phase of testing will help Harvest CROO Robotics observe and improve several elements of the harvester, including its picking apparatus. It will also address how the strawberries will be packed once picked and how the machine will actually move around the fields.
“It will help get us to the next level, which we hope to be at this time next year,” says Wishnatzki. “Next year at this time, we hope to have an alpha unit out, a pre-production model.”
Wishnatzki has been making the rounds at conventions and other industry events to get the word out about the new technology. The project currently has eight investors in the strawberry industry (including Wishnatzki) and five investors from outside the industry. Harvest CROO Robotics is about a third of the way through a second round of financing for the project, with a goal of $1.5 million. It raised $1 million in funding in the first round.
“Once we get the prototype picking in the field in Florida, I think that will make a pretty big difference,” says Wishnatzki. “We will pick up some momentum in the next month.”
Wish Farms owns or manages 2,500 acres of farmland in six states (Florida, California, Georgia, North Carolina, Michigan and New Jersey) and five countries (the U.S., Canada, Chile,
Argentina, and Uruguay). It also works closely with independent farmers growing 1,000 more acres of strawberries and even more acreage planted with other crops.
Wishnatzki expects a 20% increase in sales for 2016. (The company declined to provide specific sales figures.) Wish Farms' strawberry production and acreage in Florida and California will grow, along with its blueberry production.
“We've increased our blueberry sales by about quadruple from a couple years ago,” says Wishnatzki. “Blueberry sales are now rivaling strawberry sales for us.”
Wish Farms will also boost production of the Sweet Sensation variety of strawberry, which proved popular during trial runs and will make up at least 10% of its strawberry crop this year.
“It holds good size and shape and holds its flavor throughout the season,” says Wishnatzki. “Some other varieties can be more hit or miss; Sweet Sensation is always a hit.”