Inside The Tiny Country Where Robots Grow The Food

The wave of machines taking over farms in the Netherlands has helped propel its rise to the world's second-biggest food exporter after the U.S.

Every time one of the cows on Marten Dijkstra’s dairy farm in the north of the Netherlands needs to be milked, she makes her own way to the dairy barn and joins a queue to use a robotic milking machine.

While the cows milk themselves, Dijkstra can avoid one of the most back-bending demands of being a dairy farmer. “It gives me flexibility in my life as well as my back and shoulders,” he joked.

It seems most of his fellow Dutch dairy farmers agree. The milking robot ― first invented by Dutch engineers in the early 1990s ― already outsells traditional milking parlors where cows are taken to be milked in the country.

And they are just one of a wave of machines now taking over mundane farming tasks in the Netherlands, including harvesting, and fruit and vegetable picking, with almost $1 billion spent on innovation last year by the sector.

This innovation drive, including increasing use of automation on farms like Dijkstra’s, has helped propel a country with a land mass smaller than the state of West Virginia to become the world’s second-biggest food exporter after the U.S., with agri-food exports worth more than $100 billion.

Cows on a farm near Amersfoort in The Netherlands.
Cows on a farm near Amersfoort in The Netherlands.
ahavelaar via Getty Images

And it’s dairy, and fruit and vegetables ― where technologies like milking and harvesting robots are becoming commonplace in the Netherlands ― that account for the biggest share of that export revenue.

“Automation has been part of that success story,” said Erik Nicholson of the United Farm Workers of America. The Netherlands “is seen as a world leader because of the innovation going on there and the output it manages despite its comparatively small size.”

The Netherlands’ high population density compared with other countries has been a driving force behind the automation of its agricultural sector, said Janneke de Kramer, a food and farming robotics specialist at Wageningen University, the country’s main agricultural research institution.

“We have a lot of people in a small area of land, so for a long period now we’ve had to produce more food with less land than other countries,” de Kramer said. “The Dutch agri-sector has been good at working together to develop science and new technology to overcome this.”

The other big issue driving automation is labor shortages. Farmers are aging in the Netherlands and manual farm labor is getting harder to find as migrants from other countries return home ― many put off by poor farm working conditions. Researchers at Wageningen have said roughly one-quarter of Polish workers have left farm jobs in the Netherlands in recent years.

The local population just “don’t want to work on farms anymore,” said Dijkstra. “We have a greying population here and we’re also having fewer children, too. It’s something we can’t prevent from happening, but one of the solutions for us in farming is automation.”

A Nonstop Pepper Picker

De Kramer’s team of researchers at Wageningen are developing a range of new machines to take over almost all the hard labor being done on Dutch farms today. De Kramer said robots can make up the labor shortfalls and squeeze the most from the country’s agricultural land.

But it is not just about taking away mundane farm jobs that people don’t want to do, said de Kramer. The new wave of technology being rolled out on Dutch farms can also help improve the sustainability of food production, she said, by cutting the use of chemicals and reducing food waste.

Chemical-based pesticides have been identified as a major risk to wildlife, including wild bee and honeybee populations, as well as a health risk to farm workers.

Robots being developed by de Kramer’s team can recognize where disease might break out on crops through the use of cameras. They can then dramatically cut back the amount of pesticide applied by a targeted spraying of that area, rather than a blanket approach.

The next big challenge is automating the harvesting of specialty crops ― a breakthrough that could further reduce the need for manual labor on farms.

Researchers at Wageningen have been developing Sweeper, a sweet pepper harvester. Its robotic arm can move up and down a greenhouse, using cameras and sensors to spot and pick ripened peppers. Not only can it distinguish color, it can also recognize ripe peppers hidden behind leaves.

The robot was able to harvest a pepper in 15 seconds in tests last year and is expected to be on sale for Dutch farmers within the next three to four years. While humans can pick peppers quicker, the robots can work nonstop and overnight.

Sweeper, the pepper harvesting robot, in action.
Sweeper, the pepper harvesting robot, in action.
Wageningen University

“Our challenge is to make robots as smart or nearly as smart as humans,” de Kramer said. ”Humans can detect a lot of things that you need to put into the AI part of the robot to recognize from the pixels it sees. For example, which crop is ripe and the way to pick them, the different diseases or bugs, and how you can distinguish between crops and weeds.

The pepper harvesting robot is expected to cost $75,000 to $100,000 when it first goes on sale. But with much of that attributable to development rather than the hardware itself, the cost of each robot will fall in the future, a spokesperson for agro-robotics at Wageningen said.

With so many physical tasks in agriculture, the sector is ripe for further automation, said Michael Chui partner at McKinsey Global Institute and co-author of a major report on the impact of automation on society and work.

“The cost of labor has tended to be low for those manual farm tasks compared to other sectors,” Chui said. “But if labor availability is constrained or automation enables an increase in production or quality for the same cost, that will drive change.”

However, this does not mean that all Dutch farmers are about to be replaced by robots.

“You will always need a smart farmer alongside the smart machine. You will always need to have someone who knows about the crops and animals there, and checks and improves what the machines are doing. But perhaps in the future farmers can take a holiday,” said de Kramer.

Ripe For Disruption

Declining numbers of people working in agriculture is a trend not just confined to the Netherlands. Only 2% of the U.S. workforce is employed in agriculture today, compared with 40% at the beginning of the 20th century.

Labor shortages, due to an aging workforce and a decline in migrant workers, are also driving up the use of robotics in the U.S. “The abundance of cheap labor has gone,” said Nicholson of United Farm Workers of America. “Automation is seen as a way of maybe addressing that issue. Just as Uber and Lyft have revolutionized how we get from A to B, so tech companies are looking to do the same to agriculture.”

The strawberry sector in particular has seen a surge in interest in robotics. Gary Wishnatzki, owner of Harvest CROO Robotics, told HuffPost that more than two-thirds of the U.S. strawberry industry (in terms of acreage) had invested in his company’s robotic harvester, due to be commercialized within the next three years.

Although automation is touted as a solution for reducing costs for farmers, Nicholson said he fears farmers will not necessarily benefit financially. If they make any cost savings from using robotics, retailers and buyers would just start paying them less. “Revenues will not rise,” he said.

Back in the Netherlands, a farm full of robotics holds no fears for Dijkstra, who continues to run the farm with his wife and father. He already is looking to see what other farming tasks he can automate. In addition to his robotic milker, he has machines to clean away cow manure and activity monitors attached to his cows to tell him if they are unwell or at a good time for getting pregnant.

“I can only see upsides,” Dijkstra said. “I bought a tractor recently, but I’m certain that the next one I buy will be a robotic one that does all my mowing for me and can run all day on solar power.”

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