Robotic success in specialty crops has row crop crossover

The specialty crop industry’s expansion of robotics is laying the groundwork for alternative management options which could help row crop farmers reduce labor costs and inputs.

Weed extension specialist Steve Fennimore at the University of California, Davis works on weed control and robotics in about four dozen different types of specialty crops.

“We can reduce the labor input per acre between 35 and 50 percent,” he estimates.

He’s says that can be a significant amount when considering hand weeding costs $300-500 per acre and there continues to be a declining number of farm workers.

Fennimore says if the equipment is cost-effective, it almost sells itself.  His job is to compare different technologies and says he would like to see more sophisticated systems that are less cost prohibited.

Some of the equipment can range between $109,000 to $160,000 per machine but Fennimore says it also lends itself to reduced herbicide use.

“We’re still hand weeding, we don’t have Roundup Ready lettuce, that was rejected, we have a multilayered weed control system, and we also don’t have herbicide-resistant weeds,” he says.

He adds physical tools are classified as devices, so EPA isn’t involved.

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