Vanguard International’s CEO Craig Stauffer on Labor and Automation
ISSAQUAH, WA - Throughout the industry, labor challenges have been top of mind for fresh produce providers, especially for Vanguard International. CEO Craig Stauffer took to the virtual page in his recent release of “From Vanguard International CEO’s Desk,” discussing labor shortages and the future of automation.
“Growing fresh produce demands an extensive manual labor force that has always been a difficult order to fill. Although, with the emergence of a global pandemic and borders shutting down worldwide, is it ever top-of-mind even more so now,” penned Stauffer. “COVID-19 has presented a whole new set of labor challenges.”
Stauffer notes that most farm work can be attributed to laborer’s who travel from outside a nation’s own borders, which plays an important role year-round for a variety of pre- and post-harvest activities, including pruning, spraying, picking, packing, and storing. Because these jobs are often physically strenuous and span six to seven days a week during peak harvest periods, it is often a struggle to find homegrown residents.
Not only that, but COVID-19 has created further labor challenges.
“Over the past four months, governments worldwide began shutting down borders amid the pandemic, and uncertainty over labor ensued,” Stauffer continued. “Every grower is struggling with the new, almost weekly, changes to the rules around migrant labor, thus impacting accessibility to laborers who have often been with a grower for decades.”
With stricter measures in place to ensure the safety of both the country and produce, growers will likely need to adhere to new imposed standards such as:
- Quarantining migrant workers in physical-distanced housing for fourteen days upon entry into the country
- Ensuring physical distancing for workers while in the fields and orchards, reducing capacity
- Installing plexi-glass and other distancing measures in offices and on packing lines, reducing the pace of output and negatively impacting efficiencies
The New York Times reported that this concern is widespread. Farmers in countries such as Britain and Germany are feeling the strain of having a lack of harvesters, thus resulting in crops left in the ground.
“Growers are left with reduced labor to harvest crops this summer. In some cases, this will get resolved, but in others, by the time a resolution is found it will be too late for their crops,” explained Stauffer. “Without labor, the fruit cannot even be picked for donation to foodbanks, let alone sold normally [...] This is where automation on the farm becomes top-of-mind.”
Numerous technological advances have emerged as of late in the industry to help jettison fresh produce forward. Harvesting and packing operations have benefitted from these advancements, which is crucial now when the workforce has been reduced to help minimize the spread.
“Of course, there are many hiccups that come into play,” continued Stauffer. “A machine has to be gentle enough when picking that it does not ruin the fruit and it has to be sound enough to pass safety standards. But all in all, I believe our industry’s movement toward automation is incredibly positive.”
As with all innovations, the benefits of automations are key. Stauffer states that while pricey, technological advancements will prove their worth in the long run when it comes to filling in laborious positions that are typically difficult to fill.
“The goal with automation in farming is to replace jobs that are onerous and undesirable across the board,” Stauffer concludes. “Although expensive, when implemented accurately, they can have enormously positive returns on investment for growers, and at the end of the day, can help solve the growing problem of farm labor shortages around the world.”
Click here for the full letter straight from Craig Stauffer himself.
What new innovations will take precedence as we adapt to the challenges that have risen from COVID-19? ANUK will continue to report.