Growing Automation in the Ag Industry is a Team Effort

In August, 2nd Sight will celebrate five years of being in business and working in the Ag industry. We’ve learned a lot over the years. The article, “The Road to Orchard Robotics Has Not Been Easy" on, validated many of the struggles we’ve faced along our journey of “Engineering Better Solutions for Ag Industry."

At 2nd Sight, we enjoy listening to growers at meetings and tradeshows to learn about the biggest challenges that they continue to face in the specialty crop and commercial nursery industries. When most farm expenses come down to harvest, many agricultural equipment suppliers and tech companies are doing their best to focus on developing orchard and farm machinery and software that improve efficiency, reducing orchard harvest costs.

I thought I’d go through the highlights of the article and explain how 2nd Sight, like many other agriculture technology providers interviewed, has experienced these roadblocks while trying to further automate farming.

“What took you so long?”

Every stage of the process takes time—initial concept, defining specifications, building prototypes, testing (which often can only happen during a small window of time each year), modifications, manufacturing and then implementation on a small scale and large scale. Developing quality products is not an overnight process. We do our best to meet deadlines because we know Ag is often very time sensitive.

If you build it, they will come…. well, if the price is right.

Kevin, our CEO/President, has never questioned the fact that our team of engineers could build a system that would solve a farmer’s problem. But there’s always a qualification to this claim—but you probably couldn’t afford it. A problem really isn’t solved if nobody can afford the technology. We design and build with ROI in mind because it will impact a grower’s willingness to make a purchase.

But, there’s also a responsibility to create something that will function in all types of terrain and for many farms. There’s not only a responsibility, but a necessity. Standardization decreases costs for us as a manufacturer, savings that can be passed along to the grower. A business based on purely custom hardware and software is a tricky one to sustain.

I enjoyed Brown’s comment in the article, “A guy says, ‘I’ve got a standard bin,’ and I say, ‘there’s no such thing as a standard bin.’” It’s why the FairPick has standard, individually tared, RFID or barcode container tracking, individually tared tracked container, and multiple container selection options. Every time we moved to another farm to test our prototype scale, we learned of another way to run fruit harvest.

Trial and Error

The QuickPick is a great example of a farm labor tracking system born out of a grower's desire to solve a problem, field observation, then several rounds of testing and revisions.
Without observation and field trials, we would never have designed a system simple or fast enough to keep up with these pickers (watch this video if you’ve never seen a California tomato harvest). The bottleneck in the harvest process was at punching. Pickers ended up wasting time by standing in line waiting for their tickets to be punched when they brought up their filled buckets. Even ten seconds of waiting greatly reduced efficiency. Eliminating the bottleneck would increase worker productivity, and eliminating the person punching cards would reduce labor costs. A true win-win!

As noted in this article, farmers and their employees tend to be a little tough on equipment…. Observation also confirmed that we had to make the system rugged and robust in order to withstand six months straight out in the field and in the harsh picking environment, and minimal repairs required in the off-season.

I need to see it to believe it, but I have no time to see it.

In the article, Wafler says, “Another challenge is getting a grower to demo a piece of equipment during harvest. Growers are often hesitant to shake up their day-to-day harvest functions in the thick of things. Or even worse, have a workforce that refuses to use the equipment.” This has been a major challenge for us, as well. We’ve had our systems out for three full seasons, working in crops from peppers, pears, cherries, blueberries, blackberries, tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, asparagus, apples, and even kiwiberries. However, seeing is believing, and many farmers still want to see the machine working at their farms, during their harvests.

It’s almost an art to pull off the harvest demo—choosing the right day, the right variety, the right crew, the right phase of the moon… Harvest is a stressful time of year, and it is difficult for a supplier to get a grower on-board when the time actually comes to see the machine in action.

How 2nd Sight Customers Successfully Tackle Change

  • Leave enough time to prepare: There is always a learning curve. The first day of harvest should not be the first time you turn on a new gadget.
  • Assign a product champion: Designate at least one person in your organization to be the “go to” person for how to work the system. At least one person must be accountable, and invested in the system to ensure a positive, and successful implementation.
  • Have patience: New technology is, well.... new. No amount of testing we do in the office will ever catch all the bugs and the kinks in a product. But when something does go wrong, we’re here to help!
  • Be ready to adapt your process: Maximizing efficiency with new technology may require some changes to other parts of your growing operation. Keep an open mind and really ask yourself: “Why do we do it that way anyway?"

Ready to move your farm forward with automation and new tech? We're ready to get you going in the right direction!

One Labor Tracking System to Fit Them All

The article, “You’re not in Kansas anymore” in the Capital Press highlights the importance of crop diversification in the Northwest farm economy. Even though I’m a born and raised Washingtonian, I did not realize how many different crops the state produces until I started working for 2nd Sight almost five years ago. The following infographic does a great job comparing the Northwest to the Midwest in terms of types of crops. Growing specialty crops can be a challenge but can also lead to higher profits. Growing more than one type of crop can be a great way to diffuse risk in more uncertain economic times. Let’s hope the tariff situation cools down between the US and China…

This diversification of specialty crops is one reason why our labor tracking products developed the way that they did. For example, the FairPick scale’s mobile frame worked great when we tested it during cherry harvest, but when we moved to blueberries, the large flats would get caught on the joints supporting the scale platform. In Eastern Washington, many larger farms grow both blueberries and cherries. We had to build a “one frame fits all” model. So, we changed the joints so that they attached to the bottom of the weighing platform to accommodate picking lugs, flats, containers, bags, boxes, and any other container that might be used for harvesting fruits and vegetables.

The FairTrak was developed to accommodate farms that pay by the piece for some tasks and pay by time for other activities. Paying by weight makes sense for cherries but paying by weight for apples does not. The FairPick Lite was another step forward in meeting the needs of Northwest growers. Growers can utilize the scale during cherry or berry harvest, then remove the handheld from the scale system for scanning barcodes on bins for apple harvest. It is easier to justify an expense when one system can be used for four months versus four weeks.

Internet Connectivity: Becoming a Data-Driven Farm

Prospective customers often ask how the data collected from our various farm labor tracking devices in the field transmits to a computer. Being an urban/suburban dweller myself, I make the poor assumption that all Americans have access to good Wi-Fi and cellular networks in the 21st century. Isn’t the internet everywhere? Actually…. no.

The following statistics are from the article, “For the First Time, Census Bureau Data Show Impact of Geography, Income on Broadband Internet Access”:

  • In the average “mostly urban” county, over 75 percent of households have a subscription to broadband internet.
  • The average county classified as “mostly rural” has a household subscription rate of approximately 67 percent.
  • The average “completely rural” county has a subscription rate of 65 percent.
  • Many tech companies see this lack of internet access and connectivity as an opportunity—including Microsoft (check out this video about FarmBeats). However, these solutions are still in-work—and too expensive—for most farmers. Until the costs go down or Wi-Fi becomes more widespread (another slow process, requiring funding), farmers cannot rely on sending “real-time” data from the field to the office. It is a great goal but is still out of reach for many in the Ag Industry based on the current state of accessible and affordable technology.

Initial testing of our FairPick harvest scale system in Othello and Mattawa, Washington was an eye-opening experience for our engineering team. We had to develop our systems to work consistently and reliably with or without connection to the internet. To take it a step further, we’ve developed contingency plans if labor data must be pulled off “manually” from the devices Nothing is worse than trying to run payroll without the piecework and hourly data you need to get the job done. We are intentional about how we design our labor tracking systems because we know who is using them and where our users are located and the constraints and challenges of the Ag environment.

So can you become a data-driven farm without a reliable network connection? Yes, you can use the FairTrak, FairPick, QuickPick, InstaCaliper, and even MobileClock without internet connectivity all day. It just takes a quick "sync" or "upload" and an adequate Wi-Fi connection to push the data up to your Portal to run your reports and do your payroll. Are you set up for real-time data collection? So are we. Install a SIM card into our rugged devices to capture and sync data from the field to the Cloud. Until we're all on a level playing field, Ag tech companies have to accommodate both the best- and worst-case scenarios.