By Kate Cimini
A new tool to more efficiently harvest Monterey County’s $143 million spinach crop might bring relief for farmers struggling to find enough fieldworkers to pick it.
The spinach guard, developed by Harvest Moon Automations Inc., looks like nothing so much as a series of piano keys, splayed mere inches above the ground. It attaches to the front of a harvester, sticking just a few feet out in front of the machine.
When the tiny cameras positioned above the keys sense irregularities in the spinach — such as downy mildew, bird droppings, or something else you wouldn’t want showing up in your salad — the piano keys depress that patch of spinach, pushing it below the reach of the bandsaw or laser that slices through the stems of spinach leaves.
Last year spinach was the tenth-highest grossing crop in the county, valued at $143,376,000 by the 2018 Monterey County Agricultural Commissioner’s Crop Report. More than 16,000 acres were dedicated to cultivating spinach.
With a dwindling, aging farmworker labor market, Harvest Moon Automations co-founders Stephen Jens and Tom Garnett hope to appeal to farmers who find themselves short on laborers.
Sitting on either side of a John Street diner booth one March morning, gripping mugs of coffee, Garnett and Jens were eager to show off their technology but aware they have a long way to go before they earn the trust of farmers, despite strong early results.
“You can assume we are snake oil salesmen before (we) prove (ourselves),” Garnett said, smiling broadly. But, he said, they intended to help farmers and farmworkers with their machine.
“The first thing we hear about is a lack of labor,” Jens said. “If we gave them a machine that helps with that, they can have their laborers do something else where they can add value to the work.”
Monterey County’s 2018 “Farmworker Housing And Action Plan” for the Salinas and Pajaro Valleys shows more than 91,000 agricultural workers lived and worked in Monterey and Santa Cruz counties in 2016.
An estimated half of California farmworkers are undocumented and the average age of documented farmworkers is dramatically increasing. As such, the area is in need of an injection of younger, documented laborers.
Farmers have also seen labor shortages over past years due a deficiency in H-2A programs, which allow people from certain countries to enter the U.S. for farmwork.
The U.S. Department of Labor recently announced plans to modernize and improve the existing H-2A program.
After several years of development, the spinach guard is due to hit the market in 2019. Earthbound Farms was among some of the farms that were willing to test out the harvester for Harvest Moon.
David Martinez, who worked for Earthbound Farms until they were bought by Taylor Farms, was a maintenance supervisor who oversaw the pilot use of the spinach guard.
He said the guard allows Earthbound Farms to harvest far more spinach out of a mildew-contaminated field than it used to, though he added that there were still some kinks to work out.
“Like every piece of technology, it’s a work in progress,” Martinez said. “I heard from the guys in the plant that when it came down to mildew, instead of wasting the field and discing it, they would get a lot more (spinach) out of it with the guard.”
Some, though, are worried that machines like Harvest Moon’s will put fieldworkers out of business, cutting jobs for which skilled pickers might earn about $25,000 a year, according to a 2017 article by the Economics Policy Institute.
“Ag is place-specific,” said United Farm Workers Vice President Erik Nicholson. “As there’s conversations in other areas where tech’s being introduced, new jobs will flow from that. There could be new jobs but it’s doubtful that they’re going to be in Spreckels, California. Most likely those jobs are going to be high-tech, high-income, far from where the tech is being deployed.”
Although Nicholson said he is unaware of laborers being replaced by high-tech machinery yet, he felt it was only a matter of time. However, he saw some light in the creation of what he called “unintended jobs.”
“It’s kind of like what supermarkets have tried to do with self-checkout,” said Nicholson. “The original idea was that we could pay for our products and check out but now they realized they have to keep them staffed. They break down or have issues. It’s created a different type of job. We’re starting to see that in the field – it’s unintended jobs.”
Nicholson added that when farmers tie themselves to one crop via expensive machinery like the spinach guard, they have a harder time resetting when that crop takes a nose dive on the open market, like spinach did after the 2009 E.coli scare.
However, Jens and Garnett don’t see their company as tying growers to any one thing.
Harvest Moon is looking at expanding its tech, finding ways to modify the spinach guard or create new guards using the same technology that will aid in the harvesting other crops like romaine, iceberg or even soybeans, a Midwestern-grown crop.
Furthermore, Jens and Garnett believe this guard could even cut down on farmers’ application of fungicides or pesticides to their crops.
“We’re looking at this from a sustainability standpoint, using machine vision to replace herbicides,” said Jens. “We’re just touching the potential.”
“We all have to believe in tech, right?” Asked Martinez. “It takes time.”
This guard, which will cost between $250,000 and $285,000, is made in Boston, where Jens is located, and shipped to the Salinas Valley, where Garnett has spent most of his life. They monitor the machines though data collection to diagnose issues, which they then contract with local Salinas Valley mechanics to fix.