Agriculture industry looks to new technology to raise, harvest Florida crops

For generations, harvest time in Florida has brought an army of migrants to pick crops by hand, but now, fewer people want jobs picking. It's sending labor costs up and sending farmers looking for new technology to help raise and harvest their crops

"Artificial intelligence [AI] is the wave of the future in all kinds of industries, but especially in agriculture," said Scott Angle, the senior vice president for Agriculture and Natural Resources at the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) at the University of Florida. "The University of Florida has invested in this area. We’ve hired a hundred new faculty."

Some of the new AI researchers are at the IFAS research center in Southern Hillsborough County. They’re designing a robot that uses AI to "learn" to raise plants and care for them.

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"My long term goal is to have automation, so we don’t have to work in the fields to produce the food for sustainable food supply," said Dana Choi, an assistant professor for Precision Ag, AI, and Robotics. 

She designed an apple harvester using AI while working at Penn State. Now, she’s in the state focusing on building AI robots for Florida farmers. Many are looking for AI solutions, but have questions about the cost. 

"Because there are some growers who don’t have the financial wherewithal to invest in some of this technology, because it isn’t cheap. Research takes many, many years," said Tony DiMare of DiMare Fresh, a long-time Florida grower. 

DiMare believes federal grants could help growers invest in AI, which is also being used in drones. 

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"I can fly this 100 feet above ground level and cover an eight-acre field in 40 minutes," said Kevin Wang, an assistant professor of Plant Phenomics.

The drone is equipped with cameras that can see if crops are healthy and what they might need to thrive. To grow this kind of technology for farming, UF wants to build a new tech hub for agriculture. 

"To work with private companies to find ways to get them out into the field to be used for things that will help the Florida economy and agriculture in particular," said Angle.

Researchers believe as farm labor becomes more costly, keeping food on the table requires new technology in the fields.