Mission to Wenatchee A Tech Eye-Opener

Western Ag Vignettes

Precision, automation on deck at Washington State field day.

Published on: October 8, 2012

Just back from a most fascinating assignment to cover the Center for Precision & Automated Agricultural Systems tech expo near Wenatchee in Washington State U's Sunrise Research Orchard.

What I saw was impressive and revealing. Tomorrow's gizmos and machines on revue opened my eyes to what wonders the next generation of farmers will have in their toolboxes.

Consider: a mechanical harvester for sweet cherries; a robot knot tying unit for hops; orchard platforms that move on their own so workers can reach higher into trees; a bin dog system considered "intelligent," which loads fruit from trees; 3D units for improving apple crop loads, and another 3D mechanical pruner.
Much of which is experimental, but if you don't believe it could all happen, let me tell you the California tomato harvester story.

When the Bracero labor program ended in California in the '60s, the big labor from Mexico no longer was available to pick the nation's biggest processing tomato crop. Ergo, the University of California-Davis engineers said they'd build a mechanical harvester.

A mechanical harvester for perishable, soft tomatoes wasn't something most in the industry felt was a possibility.  Rumors of the ruin of the industry ran rampant through the tomato business, as everyone scoffed at the idea of a machine that could pick, of all things, tomatoes.

Nevertheless, industry and university came together to turn out prototypes, and they modified the tomato itself to withstand the rigors of machine handling. All of which were considered to be astronomically impossible endeavors.

But they did it, and today the processing tomato industry is 100% mechanized not only with pickers, but with electronics on the units that sort out colors, tell harvester units which plants are ripe for picking, and do most everything but produce bottles of ketchup.

And they said it would be impossible.

Wrong again.

So, when you see the new tech promise of WSU's CPAAS, dare to dream. Dare to believe in the reality for your farm in the not-far-away future.

What struck me about this field day was the rich resource of foreign engineers and other farm scientists that WSU has gathered along with domestic students. The message is that this industry is truly global not only in markets, but in the ideas, processes and machines that will shape our tomorrows.

Lots of smoke still in the Wenatchee region from the wildfires, but it is clearing up now.

Many of us forget to thank those who put on those free lunches, like the one paid for by Wilson Irrigation, Orchard & Vineyard Supply at the field day. Good eats indeed, and thanks!