HMC Farms' Drew Ketelsen Deep Dives Into the Company's Ag Tech Innovation
KINGSBURG, CA - As an industry rooted in relationships, the rise of technology in agriculture has led to one pressing question: How do we advance without compromising our people? HMC Farms is looking to solve that dilemma by incorporating innovative ag technology that not only boosts operations but livelihoods. Drew Ketelsen, Vice President and Farm Manager, guided me through HMC’s cutting-edge ag tech program.
“Ag technology is present in every aspect of our operation, from field preparation to harvest, packing to shipping, and everything in between,” Drew explains. “Ag tech doesn’t always look like a scene from the future; it can be as simple as adding a power system to reduce the manual human effort required of an activity—think of using a power drill instead of a screwdriver. Ag tech is not about taking jobs away; it’s about making jobs better, and often safer, for employees.”
Some of HMC’s most recent ag tech innovations include vineyard pre-pruners, electric pruning shears for stonefruit trees, motorized platforms for picking stonefruit, Burro® autonomous carts in the vineyards, PAGO® ag payment system, optical grading and sorting machines in packing houses, and field moisture probes.
Coming soon, HMC Farms will also incorporate flying autonomous robots using technology created by Tevel Aerobotics. And while it sounds intimidating at first, in actuality, the robots are incredibly beneficial to workers when it is too hot to pick outside or a field needs to be harvested at night. The robots are able to select ripe pieces of stone fruit from any part of the tree, pick them, and place them in a bin.
As the produce and retail industries know, there has been a recent labor shortage, and as Drew explains, technology can also play a pivotal role in filling in gaps in the workforce.
“Less labor continues to be available, and increased costs have impacted every aspect of our operations,” he says. “In order to ensure that we are able to continue farming and providing both food and jobs for generations to come, we must use technology to create more efficient and effective ways of operating our business, which in turn creates better jobs for our employees and affordable fresh fruit for consumers.”
As some in the industry worry that jobs could be taken away with the development of ag tech, HMC Farms believes that instead, innovation breeds new job opportunities and breathes fresh life into the industry. Careers that may not have existed five years ago have been created with the potential to inspire people outside of agriculture to enter the field. Great examples are PAGO and Burro, two companies that didn’t exist 15 years ago and are thriving in the ag sector as a result of new opportunities in ag technology.
In fact, Drew believes that not embracing change could lead to higher job loss for the industry and potentially other issues down the road.
“Compared to slowly losing some jobs to innovation, all jobs could be lost quickly if farm acreage is replaced with non-labor-intensive crops or pulled out of agriculture altogether,” Drew elaborates. “The concern is about more than jobs; it is also about food security. In total, California grows over 400 different categories. If we cannot find a way to provide healthy and affordable food, everyone will suffer.”
To guarantee that HMC continues to innovate, the supplier is training employees interested in future technologies to evolve into new, better-paying roles. It also partners with local colleges to expose students to opportunities in ag.
“The future of ag is filled with unknowns,” adds Drew. “What we do know is that we want ag to have a future in California and the opportunity to provide food for people. To continue to do what we love, we have to adapt and welcome a few robots into our industry.”
HMC is giving the produce industry a lot to think about when it comes to the future of ag tech. Keep an eye on @HMCfarms social media channels for the grower’s Technology Tuesday feature beginning this summer, which will showcase their ag tech in action.