The New Zealand Asparagus Council (NZAC) and NZ based Robotics Plus are to work alongside asparagus growers to develop an autonomous robotic asparagus harvester. The NZ Government’s Sustainable Food and Fibre Futures (SFF Futures) fund is contributing NZ$2.6 million to the NZ$5.83 million project.
As with so many other agricultural robotics projects around the world, a key aim is to help address ongoing labour shortages, it seems everybody wants to eat… but nobody wants to do the picking.
“We’re really excited to get this project underway as we simply don’t have enough people to do the work,” says Mangaweka Asparagus grower and NZAC Chair, Sam Rainey. “Robotic harvesting will be a game-changer for the asparagus industry that currently relies heavily on picking asparagus by hand, which is hard toil. An average picker will walk 10 kilometres per day, so it’s extremely difficult to attract people to do the work.
“Having the ability to access a commercial robotic harvester will also go a long way to helping manage costs, ensuring we can continue to put locally grown fresh asparagus on our plates.”
Steve Saunders, CEO of Robotics Plus, agrees that an autonomous asparagus harvester will alleviate labour constraints and also reduce and stabilise costs, allowing New Zealand grown asparagus to have a more competitive offering in high-value export markets.
“We’re excited to be working with growers and the New Zealand Asparagus Council to ensure we develop a solution that tackles challenges head-on and creates a better future for the asparagus industry.” says Saunders, adding “It’s an ideal robotics project as green asparagus is conducive to automation as it grows above ground. ”
Regular readers of Food and Farming Technology may remember our interview with David Sands last year. Sands is owner of UK-based ST Robotics, a firm also developing a robotic asparagus picker. However, ST Robotics are confronted with the more complex problem of needing to harvest white asparagus from beneath the soil. “White asparagus should really be cut just below soil level, otherwise the exposed stalk left behind is vulnerable to bacteria and weather” Sands told FFT. This challenge gives ST Robotics more headaches than New Zealand’s Robotics Plus are faced with on their own asparagus harvesting project.
The green asparagus project in New Zealand builds on a prototype harvester robot developed by University of Waikato researchers with Robotics Plus. Over the last two seasons, Robotics Plus has supported the University of Waikato’s prototype asparagus harvester project led by Dr Shen Hin Lim, Senior Lecturer in Mechatronics and Mechanical Engineering and mainly assisted by PhD student Matthew Peebles and robotics engineer Josh Barnett, and mentored by Professor Mike Duke. The first prototype robotic asparagus harvester was demonstrated in California in 2019, and the second iteration was trialled in Waikato last year. Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) supported the University of Waikato research programme, and Callaghan Innovation supported the PhD fellowship, prototypes and trials.
Saunders adds, “These early prototypes have given Robotics Plus great insights into creating a next-generation commercial-scale asparagus harvester and has helped generate strong interest from the asparagus industry. With support from the Ministry for Primary Industries, who run the SFF Futures fund, New Zealand Asparagus Council, and ongoing support from the University of Waikato and other partners, we will deliver automation to the asparagus industry at a time when it desperately needs to remain sustainable and keep up with consumer demand for fresh produce.”
Advancing the project to a commercially available asparagus harvester will help increase grower returns and exports, says grower Geoff Lewis of Tendertips. “However, it’s not just the picking that is important; it’s all the other aspects this technology can bring to the industry, such as yield data and potential add-ons such as packing and even weeding!”
New Zealand Asparagus Council will develop a strong marketing proposition for exporting. NZAC Business Manager, Karen Orr, says, “The New Zealand asparagus industry needs to be able to export some of their produce during peak season in late October and November. Being able to export excess produce is crucial for grower returns, and the future of domestic asparagus growing. As part of this project, we’ll be creating a unique selling proposition for New Zealand grown asparagus overseas to generate export revenue for the country.
“Half of the cost of producing asparagus is labour. We had thriving asparagus exports in the 80s and 90s, but that has reduced to almost no exports due to increasing costs, particularly for labour. There hasn’t been any investment in the industry’s future because grower returns have been decreasing.
“That’s why we’ve named this project ‘Asparagus Future’ – because this project is our future. We’ll help growers work together with Robotics Plus and MPI to create a future path with this autonomous crop management project.”
Fresh asparagus accounts for more than 74% of the global market share and has a compound annual growth rate of 3.1%. It is the fastest-growing fresh market vegetable per capita consumption throughout North America, with forecasts predicting the fresh market valuation close to US$30 billion by 2027.