down on the farm

This grape-gobbling robot is driving farmers out of work

January 14, 2014
January 14, 2014

Modern Farmer, an American publication that reads like the Esquire of agriculture, writes about the Bucher Delta R2 Vistalys optical grape sorting system, shown above, which can sort two tons of grapes in 12 minutes. It uses optical sensors snapping 10,000 frames a second to examine which grapes are suitable for wine production and which are suitable for the scrap heap.

It replaces 15 workers who would have sorted the grapes by hand in the past, and costs just $150,000.

That’s one reason the US Department of Labor expects the number of US farmers to drop by some 19% between 2012 and 2022: “The continuing ability of the agricultural sector to produce more with fewer workers will result in less demand for farmers and ranchers.”

Efficient technology long ago drove most citizens of wealthy countries off the farm and into the city, where they were bound for the factory, the service sector or a white-collar job. Huge combine machines roam fields of wheat and corn to plant and harvest, while much meat production now takes place in factory-like conditions. The remaining farm jobs were largely for tasks that required dealing with unpredictable growing patterns or requiring individual judgement—picking fruits like strawberries or apples, or sorting grapes.

Now, though, technology is proceeding to the point where a machine can actually look at a grape, determine if it is wine-worthy, and make that decision much faster than a human ever could. As robots become better at grasping and manipulating complex objects, they will only become more useful. As they are widely adopted, society will need fewer farmers. The US government estimates that the number of farmers will fall by 180,000 over the next decade; that’s not a huge portion of the total population, but it illustrates the challenges of developing new occupations for the changing economy here and in other wealthy countries.

Until our post-industrial future, when we all end up going back to the land to grow local heirloom vegetables on our artisanal plots, that is.

In summary, this machine represents technology, and the apples represent farmers clinging to their jobs:

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