Rising production costs and flat prices strengthen the case for automating labour-intensive tasks such as harvesting, the Brassica Growers Association Conference heard.
Vegetable Harvesting Systems (VHS) managing director Mel Burrell said so-called "field factories" meant crops such as broccoli can be picked and wrapped in the field and can be used 24 hours a day. "That can mean huge savings from not having to build a conventional packhouse," he explained.
This year, VHS will trial an automatic harvester boasting a vision system and robotic harvesting hand, added Burrell. But he warned: "There are enormous firms that have gone bust trying to develop this sort of thing."
Silsoe Technology technical director John Reed said cauliflower posed particular problems for automation. "You can't harvest it in a single pass as it has to be selective - you would have to detect the maturity of the curd," he pointed out. "There is a lack of a reliable, cost-effective maturity sensor - we are still reliant on humans."
Using X-rays for this purpose "would be totally impractical in terms of weight and cost", said Reed. But he added that microwave-based technologies "are getting better".
Lincolnshire engineering firm Richard Pearson has already established its automatic planting machine, the Autoplanter, in the market and has a harvesting machine in development.
Sales and marketing director Philip Bosworth said: "Labour is the one cost they can bring down over time and harvesting is the holy grail - you can go from a gang of 13 down to two. And then you have further savings in administration, not to mention the vagaries of labour supply."