RoboCrop: Will COVID-19 bring more computers, machines, and robots to Ontario farms?

Meat-packing plants and farms saw some of the province’s most substantial outbreaks. Some say that automating systems could be one way to address the issue — and, ultimately, create more jobs
By Rebecca Tucker - Published on Oct 27, 2020
Algoma Orchards, near Newcastle, is a pick-your-own farm and acts as a supplier for large supermarket chains. (Facebook)

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At Algoma Orchards, every apple is photographed 50 times.

The orchard, just outside Newcastle, has a highly automated processing facility in which, for quality control, the apples are treated like fashion models: snapped at high shutter speeds from multiple angles and then analyzed by computer software that can, to quote Algoma president Kirk Kemp, spot defects that are “one-third of the size of a pencil eraser.”

“The computer then grades them and sorts them by grade and by size,” Kemp continues. “That system will process about 60,000 pounds of apples an hour, with somebody feeding the line and then somebody else watching the equipment.”

Algoma is a family business — it has been since the late 1800s — but, at 1,200 acres, it is also a large and diverse operation, functioning as a pick-your-own farm and as a supplier for large supermarket chains, such as Loblaw and Walmart. Automation, for Algoma, is an integral component of the business. “Nobody who works for us will ever lift anything heavier than a 10-pound box of apples,” Kemp says. “Ten or 15 years ago, we'd have a half-dozen people lifting boxes and loading them onto a pallet. Now a machine does it, and there's nobody. So it takes a lot of the grunt work out of the system.”

Automation, on farms and within food-processing facilities, is not new. But the implementation of automated processes is actually quite limited: on many assembly lines, for instance, automation is largely relegated to quality control, packaging, and labelling, and most actual food processing still involves human intervention; on farms, the cost of precision-farming machines — such as tractors or combines that can be programmed using machine learning and AI tools — is prohibitive. 

But since the COVID-19 pandemic, when meat-packing plants and farms in Ontario have seen some of the province’s most substantial outbreaks, the unsafe working conditions experienced by food workers and temporary farm labourers have come under increased scrutiny. Automating some processing systems, ultimately, could be a way to alleviate such concerns. To wit: in August, the Ontario government announced $5.3 million in targeted investments for the province’s agricultural industry, with a focus on additions and improvements to farms, food producers, and food-processing facilities that would help such businesses become safer, more innovative, and, therefore, more competitive. Of the 78 facilities — ranging from farms to meat-packing plants to bakeries — that received a grant, 24 were approved for the implementation of some form of automation. 

“It would definitely be more crowded in our facilities if we didn’t have the automation we do,” says Kemp, whose Algoma Orchards was approved in August for a grant to install an automated boiler. “It has helped keep our staff safe.”

Automation, in farming as in most other industries, is something of a bogeyman: it is often viewed with suspicion for its potential to eliminate jobs. But it’s difficult, on farms and in processing plants, to know what’s better: eliminating the jobs that — as in the case of COVID-19 outbreaks in meat-processing plants this summer and in the case of seasonal labourers overall — seriously jeopardize the health and well-being of workers (for a menial sum), or keeping those jobs simply because there’s a dearth of opportunity elsewhere.

For Chuck J. Baresich, general manager at Haggerty Creek, a crop-input and marketing company, there’s a middle ground. “Maybe, in the short term, you would see the elimination of jobs,” he says. “I think, as with any industry, if you’re focused only on cost-savings, you miss an opportunity. On a medium to a smaller farm, if that smaller farmer can use automation to grow higher-value crops, it’s going to increase the number of people who can do that.” Baresich also notes that there’s an environmental upside to automation: “If you can mechanize and automate weeding rather than spraying a chemical,” he says, “why wouldn’t you?”

Baresich agrees that farming automation can reduce the need for unskilled labour and notes that it can also create opportunity for workers to engage in less menial tasks. “A machine is doing rote tasks, so the people who you have on the farm are doing higher-skilled tasks,” he says. “Plus, the hours that are being worked will be consolidated more toward regular business hours, so you won’t be asking people to work 18 hours a day.”

Haggerty Creek has brought automation to many of the farms with which it works, and in May made headlines for purchasing the first DOT autonomous field unit in Ontario. The DOT is a driverless machine that can be programmed for various outputs — such as fertilizer or water distribution — and variables, including field size. Then, as Baresich says, “You hit a button, and it’s off.” Autonomous units such as the DOT are, arguably, more sustainable — environmentally and economically — than their manual counterparts: using machine learning, they can, over time, help a farm reduce the amount of fertilizer or water that’s used by accounting for weather patterns and historical growing data. Farmers have been doing this kind of work by hand for centuries; the DOT, and other precision agriculture tools, simply makes it easier and more accurate.

Plus, Baresich notes, “from an occupational health and safety perspective, you no longer need to ask a person to work 14 hours a day. And most accidents happen when you’re tired, right? If you eliminate the need for overtime hours, you’re going to see a quality-of-life improvement.”

Glenford Jameson, founder of the G.S. Jameson & Company, a legal firm specializing in food enterprise, notes that some of the jobs that may be lost to farming automation are “temporary in nature.”

“So there is a loss, but it’s not like it’s a loss of good working-class jobs,” he says. “Some farming in Canada has become cost-prohibitive because of labour cost. But this presents a real problem for the small family farm. It’s a wonderful thing if you’re doing large cash crops. So it might depend on how you feel about the industrialization of food. If you like it, then [automation] is the next step, and you might think it’s going to be incredible. But if you are mournful for the loss of the family farm, then this poses a real challenge.”

The adoption of automated processes in Ontario has lagged, having been relegated largely to post-harvest processes, partly owing to the high cost of machines such as the DOT. Still, Kemp says, the ball is rolling — and the opportunity for large-scale change on the province’s farms can start on a small-scale basis. “Every time we automate a process, we add more jobs,” he says. “We have double the people working at our place now after automation than we had before automation. What it does is create an opportunity to process more product, compete with imports, and expand our workforce. And if a job that used to have two people beside one another has replaced one of those people with a robot, all the better — particularly right now.” 

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