How to solve farm labour shortages

Since the coronavirus pandemic struck last year, shutting Australia’s international border, we have heard incessant pleas from farmers to allow migrant fruit pickers into the country.

We are told that without these migrant workers, fruit will shrivel on the vine and vegetables will rot on the fields, leaving farmers deeply out of pocket financially and driving-up the cost of fruit and vegetables for consumers.

For years, MB has challenged farmers’ over-reliance on migrant workers, arguing that it is contributing to lower wage growth, as well as stifling Australia’s long-run productivity by discouraging farm from adopting labour-saving technologies and automation.

That is, without easy access to low-paid migrants, farms would be forced to raise wages to attract local workers. These higher wages would, in turn, encourage farms to seek out labour-saving technologies and automation, thereby raising the economy’s productivity and ultimately wages.

However, if farmers are continuously given access to cheap migrant workers then wages will remain low, there will be little incentive to automate, the capital base will shallow, and ultimately productivity will stagnate.

There is a reason why farms in advanced nations typically utilise a handful of workers operating machinery, whereas in low-wage developing countries farms are manned by lots of workers performing manual labour. The higher cost of labour in advanced nations forces farms to invest in labour saving machinery, which lifts productivity.

In the context of Australia’s fruit picking industry, below is a prime example of a high tech solution that could be utilised by Australia’s farms to overcome labour shortages:

Israeli company, Tevel Aerobotics Technologies, has developed a flying autonomous robot (FAR) that utilizes artificial intelligence (AI) to identify and pick the ripest fruit. It combines artificial intelligence with computer vision, advanced robotics, aeronautical engineering, state-of-the-art flight control, and data fusion and perception.

The FAR robot can work 24 hours a day and picks only ripe fruit…

Several FAR robots can harvest the orchards without getting in each other’s way thanks to a single autonomous digital brain in a ground-based unit. Tevel’s fruit picking robot delivers the highest performance at the lowest cost, along with high levels of flexibility that enable the harvest of multiple fruit types, including apples, pears and avocado. They also work on thinning and pruning functions.

Surely these types of technological solutions are far better than importing thousands of temporary migrants to work on farms for slave wages?

The key ingredient for Australia’s agricultural sector to flourish is productivity-enhancing automation, not exploiting migrant slave labour.

Unconventional Economist
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  1. Yeah, but if you have robots doing the work, then the entire migration-trade chain collapses. And if they go, who’s going to lobby hard and contribute to the LNP & ALP election coffers? Hm? You? Me? Deity-forbid we may cut through to them…

    • They will just keep updating the “skilled worker” void numberwang. If skilled labour such a fruit pickers are off the list, a bunch of other jobs will be added to the “shortage” list.

  2. SnappedUpSavvyMEMBER

    robots don’t buy real estate mate

    that said i cannot believe robot fruit pickers are still being developed must be harder to do then it looks

    • First failure mode I see is as it picks the fruit it pulls the branch towards itself and into the rotors, and crash, there goes the drone.

      The fact they think a drone would be the most efficient way to do this is telling…

      • SnappedUpSavvyMEMBER

        always thought it possible to have the same motorised bucket running through the rows like this thing but with large robot arms, like a welding arm, that picks the fruit. have 4 arms going flat out, one on each corner of a motorised bucket on wheels

        • Far more practical than a drone that would need to recharge every 10 minutes.
          The fruit identification and location is still a somewhat difficult problem though i’d imagine

  3. The flying autonomous robot (FAR) has a lot of potential for solving our cheap fruit picking problem.

    However a single flying autonomous robot could not possibly replace a team of cheap immigrant labourers, clearly what is needed is a flying autonomous robot team.

    If large enough and co-ordinated properly, this team could replace many cheap human resources in the role of fruit picking.

    There is no need for the farmer to take on the onerous capital cost of a FAR team (FART). This could all be contracted out. All that is required is for the contractor to arrive at the farm at the right time of year, deliver a few powerful FARTs, and bring the ripest fruit down from the trees in an instant.

  4. How about just paying the workers an appropriate cost of labour. If Aussie orchards are unprofitable, then the cost of food will rise to equate to bringing it in from offshore and if they’re still not profitable, then they go under and their land, labour and capital are freed up for more productive uses.

    It’s called capitalism. Maybe the world should try it some time?

    • The farmers think that the appropriate cost of labour is whatever poor people get overseas in their third-world country plus the cost of a plane ticket.
      The farmers think this is called capitalism. Do you agree with them?

      • It would be a solution IF the rest of the country had to survive the same global economic forces as our farmers.
        But most Aussie workers won’t ever realize just how incredibly overpaid they are because they live inside the bubble. Maybe one day the bubble will collapse but I suspect it probably won’t help our farmers because they’ll be up to their eyeball in debt just like the rest of the population.

    • “the cost of food will rise to equate to bringing it in from offshore”
      It already seems cheaper to bring it in from offshore based on the supermarket shelves…

  5. Pump and dump startup.
    I see these types of feel good promo videos all the time.
    See how they speed up the video to make it look like they pick faster.
    They also cut each pick so you cant see how long it takes to pick one fruit pop it in the basket and go pick another fruit.
    Graphics showing drone camera is fake.
    Man looking a map of the world (why?) in a data centre (why?) is actual stock footage.
    Oh, and the app is fake as well. They don’t have an app yet.

  6. How to solve farm labour shortages
    This is really a simple problem to solve, we just need to move the farms to where the people are.
    If all of our farms were located close to out outer suburbs than all those poor outer suburb kids could get after school jobs picking fruit. There problem solved and it’ll get the kids away from underpaying employers like the pizza chains and the two big supermarkets.
    I can’t see any reason why this solution is not implemented immediately, stupidity like this passed for well reasoned discourse only a few years back when our big Auto manufactures were looking for solutions.
    Our politicians didn’t understand Manufacturing and they don’t understand Agriculture. They certainly don’t understand the social and economic force that strips our regional and country towns of any talent…what’s left there belongs there…and dog help anyone that’s not from the country that dares to relocate there.
    Fortunately our Politicians understand average Aussies and the sentiment is embedded in the famous words of a former PM

    “If you don’t live in Sydney, you’re just camping out”

    • “I can’t see any reason why this solution is not implemented immediately,”

      Because all the prime farmland near sydney or melbourne now has houses/units on it and the locals aren’t leaving to let a farm be built on it.

      • See now that’s Aussie innovation removing the need for the farms to be located close to the cities by simply locating even more city close in to our biggest cities, it’s brilliant!
        Aussies, a step ahead of the game as always

  7. The problem of justifying a narrative after the event… one should never get involved in a discussion if you don’t understand the facts on the ground. And the stupidity of robots picking certain fruits beggars belief. For others, it already occurs.