If we are honest with ourselves, I think most of us in the short run are slow to accept changes. We do not like situations thrust upon us from outside forces. In retrospect, it is often these changes that have saved us. They have forced us to stop our daily grind and search outside of the box for new solutions to everyday needs. History will support me in that innovation is encouraged when there is an emergency. We are seeing this currently with how the Covid 19 Virus has inspired new discoveries in our health care delivery.
I fell that fruit production is also at one of these crossroads. If we are going to be able to supply a fresh product to our consumers we will have to do so at an affordable rate. We are price takers yes. My observation on this is a bit different. As production costs have risen so also have returns to the farm. My observation of over 50 years is that too often the per unit return is always enough to cover net production costs but very little to go towards renewal or profit. This fact is why we continue to see the number of farms annually decline. Those that survive, in my opinion, have accepted the challenge of innovate or perish. Survival of the fittest. This occurs in natural selection as well as farming.
Labor has been and will always be a challenge for our industry. We have such short term needs for labor that it makes it impossible to expect local communities to supply the necessary labor. Migrant inflows of short-term labor, while increasingly expensive, has always been sourced. I cannot recall a single farm that failed to find some degree of labor during these times of need. So long as this availability persist, we will not quite reach the tipping point of seeking a new solution.
In fruit production I see three periods of short term labor intensive need.
Once the task is complete, we do not need the labor. Pruning, hand thinning and harvest are the three I have in mind. In my opinion we are currently at a crisis as to how to complete these tasks in a cost-efficient manner. To annually apply large numbers of increasingly expensive hand labor surely will reach a breaking point. My fear is, that as an industry, we have not reached a level where we accept this fact. The cotton industry, upon the close of the Civil Warm was saved by the cotton gin and the automation of planting and harvesting of cotton.
Our packing lines are in fact light years ahead of the cultural practices in our “modern” orchards. Many of the skills used in our packing lines need to be taken outside to our orchards. Use of cameras and infra light technology needs to be directed to our cultural needs. What is needed is the research push from the complacent production side of the fruit equation.
For the last two years the Horticultural Society has been in Albany planting the seed of such a change. We need to concentrate funds to direct technology to address the need for computer generated procedures on our trees. We believe that we may already have most of the technology to perform each of these before mentioned tasks. What has been missing is the catalyst from the growing industry that it Is ready to apply such technology. We have already been working with a high-tech company that is interested in such work. They are now only on the outside looking in. We need to encourage them to proceed and that upon completion we will be ready to apply this service.
Really what it always comes down to is that we seldom pursue the new technology until it is absolutely necessary. I again refer to what is happening in real time with the Covid 19 Virus. We must learn new skills to function in our orchards that will allow us to control our production costs. I think it is the correct time to encourage our efforts in a new, more progressive manner. Change can be a very positive driver under the correct leadership. We need to learn some lessons from our past.