How to reduce labor costs and increase productivity with smart farming

In the USA, only 20% of fruit farmers have a stable labor force that they can rely on – according to the American Fruit Grower’s annual State of the Industry survey released in July 2022.

This means that for the majority of fruit growers finding and retaining qualified farm workers is an ongoing challenge with labor costs being a big part of that. While the minimum wage has increased year over year, knowing they’re in demand, many farm workers are asking for even more – sometimes up to twice as much! And it’s not just fruit growers facing these struggles. The broader grower community, including nuts, vineyards, and hops, are trying to navigate the same challenges.

For growers already operating on slim margins, doubling wages isn’t an option. Instead the trend is looking at how agriculture technology can help them become more efficient and productive.

There are two possibilities:

  1. Find ways to optimize farm labor to increase productivity and keep costs manageable, or
  2. Transform operations towards more autonomous farming which allows teams to do more with their resources and reduces the skill requirements for operators.

For many growers, autonomous farming might be viewed as a possibility for the future, but right now they’re looking for a solution that enables them to work with what they have to improve operations. There’s a willingness to invest in agricultural technology, but growers need to see any investment making an impact on operations and their bottom lines.

Gaining greater visibility to all operational activities is a huge benefit which is why smart farming technologies in particular are very attractive as a technology to improve productivity.

Why smart farming is becoming the manager’s favorite tool in orchards and vineyards

Even the best farm managers can’t be everywhere all the time. They can plan and delegate, even check in during the day, but most of the time actual productivity can only be checked at the end of a shift. Even then, you’re often relying on human-provided reporting, which is subject to gaps and errors. Did all the rows get sprayed that were meant to? Was the right amount and type of pesticide used? Were there any problems on shift and which activities didn’t get completed as a result of those problems?

With a smart farming operations platform, sensors are installed on existing machinery and farming implements to track all activities. This activity data is sent to the cloud where it can be accessed by managers on their mobile devices with the goal of improving productivity and meeting growing targets.

For example: Identifying the optimum speed for effective spraying and being able to track that through data helps managers plan and monitor activities more precisely. Most importantly, completing the activity accurately reduces the chances of having to respray again later in the season, saving on material and labor costs.

These small corrections may not seem like much, but they all add up to impact the bottom line by reducing labor costs and improving productivity as well as reducing waste.

In terms of labor, having access to operational data helps managers identify the optimum work rate for each activity and piece of machinery to maximize the efficiency of labor hours and resources. It can highlight which workers are reaching this optimum work rate and this can then be used as a baseline to identify opportunities for further improvements and efficiencies.

How visibility increases more than just productivity on an ongoing basis

The benefits of having a smart farming operations platform aren’t limited to only improving daily operations. The data collected from multiple activities gives a broader overview of all operations and helps with forecasting and reporting.

For example: When preparing ESG-related reports, it’s easier to pull data on the different types of machinery used and associated engine hours to calculate carbon emissions. In the case of spraying, protocols and even days and areas where spraying took place can be more accurately reported on. Aside from reporting requirements, if there are ever disputes with neighbors on specific spraying or farming activities, this data forms part of a solid defense that can’t be easily disputed.

For growers looking to ensure they can maintain profitable operations the most important benefit of having this data is that it becomes a baseline for future improvements. For each growing season, every piece of farming machinery and equipment and each labor activity, the data delivers a more accurate picture of where the grower is making gains and losses.

Labor challenges aren’t going away, but productivity improvements are still possible

For the most part, the shortage of skilled farm workers and demands for higher wages are beyond the control of growers. It doesn’t lessen the impact, but it also doesn’t mean that there aren’t ways to optimize labor costs and increase productivity.

Labor productivity remains a core element to growing profitability and agriculture technology such as a smart farming operations platform, can be the enabler. Ensuring that farm workers complete daily activities accurately and in a timely manner supports this. Having greater visibility into what’s happening helps managers identify what’s going right, what’s going wrong, what needs to be changed and what’s working to improve productivity.

Getting out in the field is important for increasing visibility into activities, but a manager can’t be everywhere all the time – unless they have smart sensors installed on machinery and equipment. Then they can have visibility in their pocket. A quick check on their mobile phone can give them an overview of what all the machinery and operators are doing, and if their activities are on track.

Increased visibility into operations is giving both family farmers and enterprise growers access to data that can make a real impact on the bottom line.This helps them become more efficient with labor and more productive with farming activities, and in the process they gain greater control of their levels of productivity and operating costs.

The future of farming is learning how to leverage data to make more informed decisions and become more productive. Nobody expects to use their mobile phone or computer without the latest operating system. Similarly, the growers getting ahead in the industry will be the ones making data-based decisions for growing activities. Their farms will have operating systems and data will be at the heart of it all, continuously informing ways to improve based on growing activities of past seasons and learning from that baseline.

Smart farming is about much more than simply thinking smarter to overcome challenges. It’s leveraging agriculture technology in the form of smart sensors and cloud databases to improve efficiency and productivity.

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