Thursday, July 27, 2006
IN THE MIDST OF A MAZE of muddy dirt roads and rectangular fields, a swarm of ghostlike figures emerge from a canopy of heavy fog. They are men, mostly, collecting lettuce heads from the soil and placing them in boxes for transport. It’s an everyday sight here in the Salinas Valley, America’s Salad Bowl, where a $3 billion agricultural trade (Monterey County’s largest industry) relies on thousands of immigrant workers to harvest its rich array of cash crops like lettuce, strawberries, broccoli, grapes and spinach.
Most months of the year, legions of these farmworkers dot the valley floor, harvesting fresh produce as they have for generations. But on a recent hazy summer morning off of Old River Road just east of Salinas, on a glistening field bursting with long rows of ripe baby leaf spinach, a revolution unfolds as the day’s early mist dissipates.
There are hardly any fieldworkers here. Absent is the army of hands clasping sharp knives ready to slice off fistfuls of produce. Missing, too, are the aching backs bent over all day under the sun.
Instead, a shiny chrome machine the size of a large tractor rumbles over each row of baby leaf. Quickly and smoothly, a band saw slices away the top four inches of the leaves, which are blown by a mechanical air tube onto a vibrating belt that shakes the dirt away and shoots the finely cut leaves out the back side into boxes for transport. This automated harvester, built by Ramsay Highlander in Gonzales, needs only a five-man crew to harvest the entire field. And it does the job in less than half the time that it would take a 50-man crew to complete it.
What this machine represents for the future of agriculture here in the Salinas Valley and beyond is clear to David Manzo, the supervisor for the small crew of men.
“This is the future,” says Manzo, an immigrant in his early 30s who grew up on a farm in the Mexican state of Nayarit.
Manzo admires how the harvester cuts all of the spinach the exact same length. He bends down and pulls a few small green baby leaf leaves from a red bin filled with the freshly cut spinach. “You could even say,” Manzo adds in Spanish, almost as an afterthought, “that it works better than people.”
Agriculture has been sprouting breakthrough technical innovations for a very long time. About 4,000 years ago, Egyptian farmers designed an ingenious contraption that allowed oxen to pull their wooden plows so they wouldn’t have to push them, leading to more efficient plantings. A couple of thousand years later, Chinese farmers started collecting all their organic wastes, fermenting them and spreading them over their fields to fertilize the soil.
In the 1830s, the seed drill was introduced in Europe, allowing farmers to plant larger fields in less time than by hand. At around the same time in Virginia, Cyrus McCormick invented the reaper, the world’s first mechanical grain harvester.
Then in the early 1920s, some Salinas lettuce growers started packing train freight cars with ice, allowing them to ship lettuce to the East Coast. That innovation helped kick-start a national love affair with the year-round salad and catapulted lettuce growers to the top of the Salinas Valley’s agricultural production pyramid.
In the late 1970s, researchers at Fresh Harvest in Salinas began to develop an innovation that would eventually secure lettuce’s position as king in the Salinas Valley: bagged salads. The idea involved several technological breakthroughs. Machines were developed to cut, clean and bag the produce. The bags themselves are technological wonders—three-ply devices that alternately protect the greens and let them breathe. By the late ‘90s the bagged salad craze was in effect, and by 2002, $4.2 billion worth of pre-washed, pre-cut bagged salads were being sold all across America. Most of this work is being performed here in the Salinas Valley.
In the Salinas Valley today, the wheels of innovation are spinning as fast as ever in all facets of the ag industry. There is a sense among local growers, industry leaders and even farm hands that local farms are on the cusp of a bountiful new epoch that will boost their profits and competitiveness for decades to come. These technological changes are being shaped by a slew of forces that extend far beyond the valley’s agriculture fields.
In addition to inventing new machinery, the local ag industry is pioneering breakthroughs on the biological and chemical fronts. At the USDA’s Agricultural Research Station in Salinas, some of the world’s top agricultural scientists are utilizing new microbiology tools, such as DNA fingerprinting, to identify new ag diseases, while other scientists continue the old tradition of crop breeding to create bigger and better fruits and vegetables. Also at the research station, researchers are providing urgent alternatives to the ag industry’s addiction to toxic pesticides. These advances could prove crucial to the region’s future.
Meanwhile, the unsentimental hand of Wal-Mart and other free market forces are introducing futuristic tracking technologies into the agricultural business.
Tanimura and Antle, long a bastion of innovation and a supplier of produce for Wal-Mart, is the first vegetable grower in the nation to experiment with radio frequency identification technology (RFID), which uses tiny, scannable computer chips in distributing ag products.
At the same time, political and economic forces are prompting local entrepreneurs to develop newer generations of automated harvesting machines that could in a decade wipe out thousands of farmworker jobs.
In the Salinas Valley, a true revolution is taking place in agriculture. While many of the changes like RFID and automated harvesting are high-tech in nature, today’s agricultural pioneers must still slog through old-fashioned elements like mud, rain, heat and unpredictable weather patterns that have been around since well before ancient Egypt.
At the heart of all of today’s changes, beyond the global forces of money and politics and sci-fi technologies, there lies an ancient human impulse of ambition that pushes today’s ag pioneers to do their jobs better than before, and better than their competitors.
David “Coon” Offerdahl doesn’t mince words in describing the goal of his company, Ramsay Harvesting. “We’re in the midst of changing our machine designs to eliminate as many bodies as possible,” says Offerdahl, the tattooed and pierced vice president of engineering for the ag machine company. “We want to help growers get to a point where workers will be able to work in the fields in better conditions, rather than being hunched over all the time. Plus for the growers, the less labor they have to pay for, their costs go way down.”
The way Offerdahl sees it, their automated harvesters that cost about $250,000 each are simply meeting a demand. On a recent morning near Salinas, Chris Garnett, Ramsay’s VP for marketing and sales, does the math as he watches one of his company’s automated harvesters finish off a long row of baby leaf spinach in about 10 minutes.
“By hiring five workers instead of 45 to harvest this field, a grower can save about $22,500 in labor costs each week,” says Garnett. “So in about 10 weeks, they’d have just about paid for the harvester.”
Garnett says Ramsay Harvesting has been producing baby leaf spinach automated harvesters for six years and has sold more than 50 in the US, Canada, England and Spain. “Every year we’re tweaking the harvesters to make them better,” says Garnett, a soft-spoken and clean-cut man who grew up in the Salinas Valley in a strawberry-growing family.
While lowering labor costs is a driving force behind today’s growing demand for automated harvesters, it’s not the only one.
With estimates showing that about half of all American farmworkers are here illegally, coupled with fierce anti-immigrant sentiments in Congress, many growers feel it’s time to start investing in a technology that diminishes their reliance on undocumented immigrant workers.
Besides, Garnett says, today’s farmworkers don’t really want to be farmworkers. Most abandon the backbreaking work of the fields—even in middle of harvesting season—as soon as they land a job in construction or in a restaurant.
“No one risks their life to come to this country to be a lettuce-cutter all their life,” says Garnett, who spent years amongst Mexican farmworkers in his father’s fields.
Ramsay Harvesting machines are already a common sight in the Salinas Valley, especially the harvesting aids for strawberry and lettuce crews. “We calculated that 30 percent of a strawberry pickers’ time on the field is spent walking boxes to the trucks and then walking back to where they left off picking,” Garnett says.
With that data in hand, Ramsay engineers produced a machine the size of a small airplane that follows strawberry and lettuce pickers on the field so they only have to pick the crop and place them in boxes on the contraption’s “wings.” That results in big labor cost savings for the growers.
Another piece of equipment allows farmworkers to pack romaine hearts into salad bags right out on the field, which fulfills an idea that Bud Antle formulated in Salinas in the 1970s, but later abandoned.
Bob Roach, assistant agricultural commissioner for Monterey County, says a big trend on local farms is to have as much work done out in the fields as possible, such as cleaning produce and even bagging it. While these innovations do cut costs and add extra value to a company’s produce, there is no doubt about what the real holy grail of harvesting innovations will be: an automated harvester for lettuce and romaine hearts, two of the Salinas Valley’s top crops.
The idea has been around for decades, but harvesting lettuce and romaine hearts is hard to do with a machine. “You need that human touch,” says Roach. “Because every head of lettuce is not ready to be cut at the same time. It’s a tough problem, and someday someone will solve it.”
Ramsay Harvesting and Tanimura and Antle are in a race to do just that. Both companies are testing out pilot romaine lettuce automated harvesters that, if successful, will replace thousands of farmworkers in the Salinas Valley.
Neither company will allow their pilot harvesters to be photographed. But representatives from both say the goal is to have the harvesters cut romaine lettuce out of the fields, poke the lettuce’s core out, and have it put in boxes so it’s ready to be packed in ready mix salad bags.
“The goal is to have it all done automatically, including the packing,” says Jaime Michel, who works in Tanimura and Antle’s research and development department. “We’re testing the machine out right now here in Monterey County and also in Yuma, Arizona…we’ll probably see these mass-produced in five to 10 years.”
While Michel has heard arguments that the development of this kind of automated harvesting technology will eliminate human jobs, that’s not a necessarily a negative outcome to him. “The field is the last place immigrants want to work nowadays,” says Michel, a Mexican from Guadalajara who started in the industry by working in packing factories in the Salinas Valley. “Plus, you’re never going to eliminate all of the jobs in the field, just the most mundane and the most difficult.”
If automated lettuce harvesters replace most of the Valley’s farmworkers, the social repercussions will be massive in Monterey County, where tens of thousands of seasonal farmworkers now live and work several months out of the year. No one seems to be quite sure what will happen to these people or where they’ll go if they’re no longer needed out in the fields. But that question doesn’t trouble the driver of the automated baby leaf spinach harvester near Old River Road. “Nah, I don’t worry,” says the farmworker in Spanish. “I’d just find another job.”
After loading up with a full morning’s harvest, dozens of trucks from all around the Salinas Valley head straight for the gates of Tanimura and Antle’s massive cooler in Spreckels. One by one, they line up front-to-back along a long driveway that leads to the unloading dock. And there they sit, with their engines idling.
Under the company’s current system, trucks unload their produce according to their order of arrival. At around midday (rush hour for ag vehicles) that means drivers often wait for as many as six or seven other trucks to undergo the painstaking process of having their entire cargo inventoried with a hand-held bar code scanner before even a single box of produce can be unloaded.
Stefan van der Bijl, a senior software engineer for Tanimura and Antle, acknowledges that the company’s system could use some improvement, especially since trucks carrying produce harvested hours before must wait behind trucks that are carrying produce cut just a few minutes earlier.
And there is hope that this will change.
Tanimura and Antle researchers are betting that the needed change will happen with the help of RFID technology, one of the early 21st Century’s most ubiquitous and potentially versatile technical innovations.
Van der Bijl, a youthful looking man who speaks with a European accent (his parents are Dutch and French), explains how RFID computer chips will solve the truck-bottleneck problem. Eventually, he explains, each and every box of produce will carry a chip containing information such as what time the produce was picked and from which field it was harvested.
When the trucks come bouncing down the company’s driveway with their loads of RFID-tagged produce boxes, drivers will only have to steer their cargo past an array of RFID sensors. In a flash, a computer will log the truck’s entire inventory.
There is a further benefit: When those boxes come down the driveway to line up outside the company’s cooler, an RFID radio scanner will inform a technician which truck is carrying the “oldest” produce. That technician can then order that truck to the front of the line.
“To minimize that wait time is the most critical for us,” says van der Bijl on a morning walk into the Tanimura and Antle cooler. “Because as soon as you cut a head of lettuce, it starts dying.”
Van der Bijl continues to talk but is suddenly distracted as he spots a sticky label peeling off a black plastic box stuffed with freshly cut cauliflower. “Hold on one second,” he says as he leans over to snap a photo of the crooked and soggy label with his cell phone camera. “I have to make a record of that.”
The label that van der Bijl photographs looks like a normal sticker with a bar code. But it’s not. Embedded in it is the radio frequency identification (RFID) chip that’s as large as a postage stamp and just as thick.
The concept of RFID technology is simple. The technology behind it isn’t. When an RFID chip passes near a special magnetic reader, a current shoots through the chip that causes it to emit a pulsing signal identifying itself. “The beauty of RFID,” explains Mikelea Hailstone, Tanimura and Antle’s e-business manager, “is that it’s like a bar code that yells at you.”
RFID technology is already used in places like highway toll booths and in some hospitals, where newborns wear wristbands embedded with an RFID chip that triggers an alarm when it approaches a hospital exit. The potential uses for RFID technology today are wide open. Until recently, however, no one had ever used it to track produce in the US.
Van der Bijl, who is spearheading Tanimura and Antle’s RFID program, stuffs his cell phone back in his pocket and resumes his tour of the company’s Spreckels produce cooler, a refrigerator the size of a football field. Inside, dozens of fork lifts speed in every direction, lifting crates carrying thousands of pounds of produce onto 15-foot high shelves with awesome dexterity.
“Of all the produce you see in here,” says van der Bijl as he points to the endless rows of stacked crates, “more than 90 percent of it will be shipped out within 24 hours.”
For a company like Tanimura and Antle, the Salinas Valley’s largest produce harvester, it is critical to keep their produce constantly moving because the longer it takes the produce to get to store shelves, the higher the risk that it’ll be rejected because it has aged too much.
For this reason, when Wal-Mart, one of Tanimura and Antle’s largest contracts, asked its suppliers to start using RFID chips on its shipping crates in 2004, Tanimura and Antle jumped at the chance.
For Wal-Mart, the advantage of having its whole inventory tagged with RFID chips is that its technicians can eliminate shipment bottlenecks and avoid having too much or too little of a certain product. On a centralized computer, Wal-Mart employees can see a complete real-time overview of where its products are at any given point in time. These technicians can then place orders based on carefully calculated future needs.
For Tanimura and Antle, the goal is to track each and every box of vegetables it harvests from the moment its contents are picked until the moment the box is disassembled in the store. This way, company officials will be able to tighten up their distribution system and identify problem spots in their infrastructure.
“We saw this as critical for us,” says van der Bijl, who’s been working on the RFID project for two years. “[RFID] is where the future is and we want to be the first to implement this.”
Being first isn’t easy. Even though van der Bijl is working with cutting-edge computer technology, getting the RFID tags to actually work has entailed years of old-fashioned trial and error. He and his project coworkers have had to slog through muddy farm fields under pouring rain, experiment with endless rolls of duct tape and chicken wire, and endure a long search for something as mundane as the right type of sticker glue.
“Murphy’s law never failed us,” says van der Bijl, who designed Tanimura and Antle’s RFID computer tracking system. “When we were in Yuma in 2004 doing test runs, all of the field crews were crabby and full of mud from the rains, and here we were telling them that they had to pay more attention to how they stuck the RFID tags on the crates. It was a challenge.”
After all the trials, Tanimura and Antle completed its first shipment of RFID-tagged crates of lettuce and cauliflower to Wal-Mart in January of 2005.
The wrinkles in the system are still being ironed out, but its essential components are already in place. It all begins in the fields. As boxes of produce are filled by farmworkers, sticky RFID labels are attached to each box. As the boxes are loaded onto a crate, the labels are read by an RFID scanner that records the time and exact location, as well as what crew is harvesting the produce. That data is transferred to a centrally-accessible database.
Next, the boxes are driven to Tanimura and Antle’s unloading dock, where they’re again scanned. Here, technicians can make a key measurement: the time it has taken for the produce to arrive in the cooler from the field.
The boxes are scanned again in the cooler and again when it’s time for them to leave the plant and move closer to a customer. At each interval, a company technician can glimpse the history of each box. When the boxes of produce get to Wal-Mart, then Wal-Mart officials continue to record the shipments’ every move until they make it to the shelves.
While getting the system to work has taken years of research, there’s still a long way to go before Tanimura and Antle can wholly rely on RFID technology. Currently, less than 1 percent of the company’s volume is tagged with RFID labels. A major barrier to full implementation is the price of RFID technology, namely the chips. The company now pays about 10 cents for each RFID chip and about 40 cents for each label. When there’s an surplus of product in the market, as there was recently in the Valley with lettuce, paying an extra 50 cents per box of produce is very expensive. “That’s huge,” says van der Bijl. “Until we can find a way to reuse the RFID labels, it’s safe to say that a 50 cent cost per box could erase the [produce’s] profit.” Another challenge is improving the rate at which the RFID labels are read when they’re scanned. Currently, only 70 percent of the RFID tags on a pallet get read during a scanning.
But van der Bijl is optimistic. Tanimura and Antle just ordered a new batch of RFID tags that are superior in every respect, including the distance at which they can be scanned. “We are already transitioning to the new tags,” says van der Bijl. “I expect that with these, we’ll see the 70 percent scan rate probably go closer to something like 100 percent.”
When asked if the company has kept the project under tight wraps to prevent other growers from copying their ideas, Hailstone and van der Bijl shake their heads. “There are no secrets in the Valley,” says Hailstone.
That’s something Tanimura and Antle officials plans to use to their advantage. “If only we use RFID, then we won’t have a lot of purchasing power,” van der Bijl says. “But if the whole industry does it, the price of the technology will go down. We see huge opportunities with this.”
Since the 1990s, organizations like the California Strawberry Commission (whose members produce nearly 90 percent of the nation’s fresh strawberries) began pumping tens of millions of dollars into research projects to find alternatives to methyl bromide, an effective pesticide that’s also responsible for destroying the earth’s ozone layer. But matching methyl bromide’s effectiveness hasn’t been easy. That’s until Husein Ajwa, a University of California at Davis agricultural scientist based at the USDA’s Agricultural Research Station in Salinas, began working on the problem.
Ajwa, a soil and vegetable scientist with dozens of plaques and awards hanging in his spacious office (including one from the White House), has helped designed the most effective alternative thus far to methyl bromide. The genius of the innovation is that it relies on growers’ drip irrigation systems, those thin little hoses that irrigate a field by releasing water slowly into the ground. Instead of using methyl bromide, growers can now apply less harmful pesticides to the field through the irrigation system.
Mark Murai, chairman of the California Strawberry Commission, says that 50 percent of the state’s strawberry growers are now using the drip irrigation application system with pesticides that aren’t methyl bromide. “Husein’s innovation has been really big for us,” says Murai. “He’s delivered a fumigation system that uses water and emulsifiers to keep the fumigant in the soil, right where we need it. It’s a pretty safe delivery system.”
Meanwhile, other scientists at Salinas’ Agricultural Research Station are also on the cutting edge. Carolee Bull, a plant pathologist, is utilizing DNA fingerprinting technology for the first time to identify new strains of plant diseases in the Salinas Valley. Other scientists are testing out new strains of vegetable crops to discover which are naturally more resistant to prevalent diseases.
Robert Perkins, executive director of the Monterey County Farm Bureau, is particularly excited by the prospect of a biotechnology boom in the Salinas Valley.
“This is an idea whose time is coming,” says Perkins. “It’s a science with such widespread possibilities.”
Perkins believes that soon, biotech researchers will be able to manufacture crops that are more productive, require less pesticide use and have more vitamins and nutrients than anything consumers can find in the market today. “You can speculate endlessly about what this technology will be able to do for us,” he says. “One of the single biggest rewards that’s coming at us is the delivery of crops that can overcome pest challenges without resorting to methyl bromide or other pesticides.”
If and when this technology does arrive in the Salinas Valley, it will represent another major lunge forward in the evolution of a local ag industry that is already bursting with all sorts of innovations. And sooner or later, Perkins believes, the general public will start to catch on to the fact that what’s taking place out in the fields has little to do with the public’s outdated preconceptions of ag.
“People still have this image of farmers on tractors with the steel seat on a steel spring, out in the heat and dust and bugs,” says Perkins. “But go out now and see the big tractors, how they have an enclosed cab and have air conditioning, GPS systems and laptops with a wireless Internet hookup. It’s like a jet compared to a Model T. And it’s all out there. Those are the kinds of steps in technology that will make life better and more productive for all of us.”