Ask produce and floral industry executives on the production side of the supply chain what keeps them up at night, and chances are that labor is at the top of their list of insomnia inducers.
And for good reason. Labor consumes a significant amount of management time to hire, fire and take care of everything in between. It also is a significant expense in an increasingly low-margin and competitive industry – often 35-40 percent.
“Labor has moved to the forefront of management issues for growers and packers,” says Bob Whitaker, Ph.D., chief science and technology officer for Produce Marketing Association (PMA). Whitaker’s extensive corporate background includes operations, innovation, R&D, product development, and food quality and safety. “Labor has crossed the threshold that motivates us to search for solutions to help us work smarter.”
As a result, businesses large and small are seeking to address their labor challenges, but with mixed effort and effect. Ask those same executives what they are doing, and chances are that they will mention a few disparate activities and then shrug. That is particularly true at smaller companies, which are the backbone of the industry.
Evolution, not revolution
Wondering how to “work smarter” to address your labor challenges? Whitaker and industry consultant Minos Athanassiadis encourages companies to take a long-term, incremental view. Athanassiadis is managing partner at Fresh Link Group, which helps technology and grower-shipper clients to define, build and launch new products and services. Previously, he led value-added innovation for several produce leaders. (Whitaker is emcee for, and Athanassiadis is a speaker at, PMA’s 2017 Tech Knowledge conference May 4-5 in Monterey, California, USA.)
“As our labor pool further migrates to higher paying or less physically taxing work, technology will help to address that gap,” says Athanassiadis. “But we are talking about an evolution rather than a revolution.”
Whitaker says that the first step is for companies to evaluate their operations to determine where their labor pain points are, and only then look at potential technology solutions to see what fits.
“We tend to be attracted to the shiny new toy, or to look across the street to see what our neighbor is doing,” says Whitaker. “That’s all good, but first each company should create a roadmap that looks at where technology can have an impact. Then engage with technology developers to match their solutions up against that roadmap.”
Athanassiadis cautions against one-size-fits-all solutions, noting, “The term ‘ag technology’ is as meaningless as ‘business technology.’ There is only ‘crop-specific technology’. Each crop’s needs are different.”
Athanassiadis recommends partnering with an expert much like companies already partner with accountants, attorneys and software consultants, “someone who understands your specific industry, and your specific crop. They can help you do your homework, and to apply your company’s requirements to the technologies that are out there.”
Whitaker advocates having an integrated, systems view. One department may be upgrading part of an operation and investing in software to facilitate that upgrade, while another department is making an equipment change elsewhere that also has a software impact. “You can find yourself working at cross purposes really quickly if you don’t think about integrating systems,” he says. “If you have a bunch of independent systems, then you can’t reap the efficiencies that you might have been able to if you had given it forethought going in.”
Automation is the first frontier
Automation is the primary area where technology is poised to help our industry to work smarter, report Whitaker and Athanassiadis. They cite examples such as automated harvesters, vineyard leaf removers, field weeders and thinners, and water jet cutters in fresh-cut leafy greens operations.
Here too, they stressed the need to have a holistic view. Automation may mandate variety changes, such as modifying romaine plants to be tighter and sit up higher on the plant bed, to facilitate machine harvesting.
“Agronomic and genetic improvements have to match harvesting automation improvements at a similar rate – and that’s a long-term process,” says Athanassiadis.
Whitaker agrees, saying, “As we build new buildings, as we design new products and build new lines, we’ll see these innovations becoming part and parcel of the overall operation and integrated technologies can yield their maximum potential. In the meantime, we retrofit our legacy equipment and make incremental improvements.”
“Change is coming, be patient and don’t expect industry-upending results – look for small wins, and build on those wins,” said Athanassiadis.