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Nov. 8, 2019

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Nov. 8, 2019
Automation isn’t just changing how you grow. It’s changing how seed companies breed your crops. Photo courtesy of Rijk Zwaan USA

It’s no secret labor shortages are driving vegetable growers to adopt harvest automation. But there’s a significant hurdle to the movement: Not all vegetables lend themselves nicely to automation.

Vegetable seed breeders are aware of the status quo and are on the job.

“There are already some commercial products that benefit growers by being more adapted to mechanical harvesting,” says Rick Falconer, USA Managing Director for Rijk Zwaan USA.

Parthenocarpic pickling cucumbers are a good example of progress underway. New varieties have more concentrated fruit set on compact plants — and thicker skins.

“The slightly thicker fruit skin helps improve quality and the compact vine aids with machine harvesting,” he says.

Breeders Collaborate with Engineers

Falconer says specific technologies can impact breeding goals. He mentions PlantTape, a fairly recent and highly efficient transplanter.

“Certain traits from breeding can help with systems like PlantTape, where both plant architecture and seed quality are considerations,” he says. “Blank tray cells and weak, slower-growing plants can be a real problem for these new systems.”

That makes blending plant breeding and agricultural engineering a high priority.

“If we understand the ag engineer’s pain points, breeding can do a lot to help solve these issues,” he says. “Agriculture has made some big steps in crop automation over the last 30 years or so,” Falconer says. “Crops like carrots, onions, spinach, and processing tomatoes are good examples where breeding and mechanical engineering have collaborated to develop strong sustainable markets.”

Broccoli Currently in the Spotlight

Another world leader in plant breeding is Sakata. It’s part of the breeding-for-automation movement, with particular emphasis on broccoli. Sakata currently offers 25 varieties.

Two recent introductions hybrids are good examples of its automation breeding goals. ‘Emerald Star’ is tight-headed with small leaf attachments for easier crown cut, while ‘Godzilla’ has a mid-high head position and leaf attachments that are smaller and lower on the stem, allowing for quick trimming and easier harvest.

‘High Rise’ broccoli from Seminis Vegetable Seeds, part of the Bayer Crop Science division, earned top honors for its automation-friendly features. Produce Marketing Association Science & Technology Circle of Excellence Group recognized how the variety — nearly 20 years in development — delivers fewer large leaves with cleaner stems and higher visible crowns that translate to fewer harvest passes and time-saving machine harvesting.

“The cost of harvesting broccoli is one of the largest expense factors in its production. Uniformity of heads and placement in the canopy can affect head recovery efficiency with automated harvest systems,” a Seminis Agronomic Spotlight titled “Moving Towards Automated Broccoli Harvesting” noted.

Putting the spotlight on broccoli is a smart move. The latest survey from Green Giant (5,000 respondents between the ages of 13 to 73 released on “National Eat Your Vegetables Day”) shows it to be America’s favorite vegetable for the second year in a row, with cauliflower and asparagus coming in as distant challengers.

A Surprising Long History

“If you think about the history of vegetable breeding, this isn’t the first breakthrough,” says John Purcell, Bayer’s Senior Vice President, Distinguished Fellow Vegetable Seed R&D Lead.

Purcell points to the processing tomato as the premier success story. Fifty years ago, it also combined both genetics and mechanization.

“If you think about relatable characteristics for mechanical harvest, you want fruit to be able to ripen over a longer period of time,” he says. “Because, particularly in vine crops, you go in and essentially destroy the plant during harvest. You want fruit to be set and concentrated to get the greatest yield.”

In other cases, you want fruit that’s more durable than hand-harvested crops — like melons with a more durable rind.

“One of the most powerful tools we have right now to find better ways to grow and mechanically harvest crops is breeding,” Purcell says.

Breeders are well equipped to develop the needed crops, he says.

“We know the variations that control plant architecture, things like flowering time. We know a lot about the genes that control these traits. We understand the genetic package we need to put together new gene-editing packages. So, we know how to adapt plants to machines and now we need to work on adapting machines to harvest more like humans,” he says.

Breeding Takes Time

Jeff Zischke likes broccoli, but looks at things with a different set of eyes as Research Director for Sakata Seed America, Inc.

“We work with crops from soup to nuts, a little bit of every vegetable you can imagine. Because some varieties have more labor challenges than others,” he says.

His team also is thinking broadly about emerging technology. They’re not just looking at the movement of automated harvesters, but analytics as well.

“Going forward, we’re looking at ways that machines containing imaging devices can select plants better for harvesting — be it broccoli heads or melons,” he says.

Crops mentioned in this article — broccoli, melons, and tomatoes, plus bell peppers — are naturals for automation, Zischke says. As a result, he predicts the industry will see faster breeding developments in those crops.

“Once the right combination comes along, I think you’ll see things move rather rapidly,” he says.
Growers will have to wait quite a while for similar strides with other crops, however — at least for now.

“Developing new vegetable varieties calls for a lot of patience,” Holland-based Enza Zaden says on its website. “And by that, we really do mean ‘patience’ as it may take six to 12 years before we have developed a new vegetable variety and launched it onto the market.”

Nothing New in Breeding for Less Labor

Automation isn’t the only means to reducing production labor costs, obviously. Harper-type cantaloupes or long shelflife melons are a great example. These melons’ firmer texture holds up better in the field than do the older types.

“Harvest crews need to pick fewer times and therefore save labor costs,” Falconer says. “And this kind of feature is taking place across the board in cauliflower, broccoli, lettuce, and other hand-harvested crops where concentrated maturity can help reduce the cost of harvest.”

Labor cost savings are not only represented on the back end of the crop, Falconer notes. Because breeding for planting and transplanting is already a priority in the seed industry.

Sakata’s Zischke echoes that sentiment.

“Our philosophy is that, at the start, seed quality and uniformity can ease the demand on labor by minimizing the amount of time a crew needs to spend in the field,” he says.

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