In the productive fields of Salinas, California, we had the opportunity to view and interact with one of the largest strawberry operations in the nation. Driscoll’s is an organization that works to market and produce some of the “world’s finest berries”. The company operates by working with nursery growers and berry farmers in order to market to the massive demand for fresh, high quality berries.
This kind of production, though it is quite successful, comes with a high variety of challenges, and we were able to talk about these issues and opportunities with the people at Scurich Family Farm.
Challenges we noticed …
We saw that issues of drought, labor, and the management of fruit that is below Driscoll’s high quality standard can be concerns for growers. Between managing day-to-day operation, adjusting to weather conditions, and performing the numerous other tasks that occupy the lives of producers, we thought that there may be aspects to these issues that we may be able to put our minds to in order to help this type of farming run more smoothly and sustainably.
As many people know, the recent drought in California has been an obstacle for most farmers in the state. Even if they still have most of the water that they require, they may struggle financially due to increases in the price of water. In working to overcome this obstacle, the media has not been very helpful, placing farmers in a negative and wasteful light more often than not. In order to address this, we need to make sure that agriculturalists are at the forefront of innovative water-saving technologies and practices, an area in which there can always be improvement.
Because of the labor-intensive process required in fresh berry production and harvest, the need for a reliable, sustainable, and ethical workforce in combination with the shortage of available labor can impact day-to-day operation. By providing farmers with innovative technological improvements to decrease the dependence on a large seasonal workforce as well as to assist in the degree of difficulty of work for the employees, we may be able to ease this burden.
… And some thoughts about facing them
One of our observations was the amount of fruit that has to be cast aside because it is damaged or will not be sellable for other reasons. Because strawberries are so delicate, it would be difficult to come up with an all-encompassing solution (many are trying to increase the efficiency of this process with technology. The Agrobot may assist in both this issue and the challenge of labor). However, a small help may be to set up a system by which people can pay market price to come in and remove that excess fruit. There could be a unique educational aspect to this as well – while helping to eliminate that waste, others could learn about the challenges that face agriculturalists today as they gain exposure to field work and build relationships with their local farmers.
We also observed the voracity of the wind in the valley, which leads to concerns about the retention of desirable topsoil. As we discussed these issues with the producers, it became clear that they welcomed young agriculturalists and bright minds to work together toward solutions.
What was fascinating to us about our time in the strawberry fields were the unique opportunities that could arise from the challenges we saw. If we set our minds on the future of agriculture, we are able to combine such a large variety of perspectives and apply our knowledge to innovate ways to ease the burdens of the producers while also addressing environmental and human health. We are so grateful for this experience.
Blog authors: Hannah Fortin is a student at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and Yannik Schlup is a student at ETH Zurich.
This study tour is part of ETH Meets California, a 10 day event organized by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH Zurich) that brings some of its top researchers and students to California to unravel the mysteries of science and technology in an exchange of ideas with west coast counterparts in academia and industry.